Today, Caroline Bennett discusses music periodizations, pedagogy, and more, while highlighting the importance of studying a variety of musicians and musical styles.
Whenever someone tells a story, reads a textbook, writes an essay, or participates in a discussion, this person inevitably employs a set of preconceptions and a view of the world. In a discussion of periodizations in music history, historian James Webster notes that “periodizations serve the needs and desires of those who make and use them…This is so whoever ‘we’ are, and whether we conceive our historical intentions as ‘objective’ or interest-driven.” Webster’s claim also pertains to the current push to diversify the study of music. When historians or teachers decide which composers to talk about they have certain objectives, and the attempt to diversify music history is a direct result of the value that American society currently places on inclusivity and diversity. Although this is not necessarily a wrong approach to music history, musicians should be conscious of why they study certain people or compositions. Musicians can actually achieve greater diversity in their view of the past by not making diversity the ultimate objective. Rather, musicians should strive to study and perform music that was impactful at the time that it was written, that serves an important pedagogical function, or that is timely and appropriate in a modern context. This goal, though daunting, is achievable if historians, teachers, and performers expand their knowledge of music and apply it to their respective disciplines.
Given the immensity of music history, it may appear unfeasible for music historians to talk about music that is not only excellent but also demonstrates diversity. However, this should not be the primary goal of historians. Instead, while conducting research historians should notice any information that is thought-provoking or could potentially connect with other facts. If the name of an unknown composer is mentioned in a document, a historian should consider going off on a tangent and seeing where else the composer is mentioned or what pieces the person wrote. This may lead to exciting connections between the unknown composer and more famous composers, or occasionally result in the discovery of a truly great or influential artist. Additionally, historians have a second task: they should notice the time periods, countries, and societies that did not have many composers of diverse ethnicities or genders. For example, a prevalent reason why there have been fewer and less-well known female and African-American composers in music history up into the 20th century is because they did not have good educational opportunities. Although this makes it harder for historians to include diverse composers in their writings and presentations, it is wise for historians to inform their audiences of these reasons because it gives context to the narrative and highlights the composers who did manage to overcome racial prejudice or social inequality, such as Scott Joplin, Ethel Smyth, William Grant Still, or Germaine Tailleferre.
Supplied with the wealth of resources that music historians share, music teachers can expand their knowledge of their instrument and its repertoire. It is important for teachers to be familiar with an assortment of pieces that not only come from various time periods but also have different purposes, contexts, and styles. This gives teachers an arsenal of works with which to inspire and challenge their students. Although a majority of the pieces that teachers assign their students will be by standard composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, if teachers are intimately familiar with their instrument’s canon they will have the freedom to choose pieces best suited to their student’s interests and abilities. Likely this will lead to more and more students studying works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and the like. For example, if a piano student expresses interest in learning a blues or jazz song, a teacher might assign “Saint Louis Blues” by African-American composer W.C. Handy. The benefits of this are twofold. Not only will the student likely be more motivated to practice the piece because it is appealing, but it will also present an opportunity for the teacher to introduce the student to a specific segment of music history. Indeed, teachers ought to always seek to incorporate music history into lessons and expect their students to become well acquainted with the story and repertoire of their instrument.
When musicians receive a well-rounded education and are knowledgeable of their instrument and its repertoire, concert programs are more likely to feature unique and lesser-known works. A performer who remembers that she enjoyed studying Amy Beach songs in high school will be more likely search for more good pieces by Beach and include them on concert programs later on in her career. This will in turn introduce audience members to pieces and composers that they may not have been familiar with before and inspire other musicians to study new works. Though not overtly related to diversifying music studies, this process will certainly affect people’s understanding of music history and eventually make a mark on musical canons. The story of how Mendelssohn’s performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the mid-19th century helped instigate renewed interest in Bach’s music, though not an example of diversity, certainly demonstrates the power of performing uncommon pieces. Even one concert can prompt more and more people to study music by an unfamiliar composer until that composer becomes an established figure in music history.
If music historians are diligent in following tangents in their research and discovering new composers and pieces, and if teachers assign a variety of works to their students and encourage their students’ curiosity about their instrument’s history and repertoire, and if performers constantly present the most innovative, interesting, and compelling works on their instruments, then music history and music canons will naturally become more diverse. Instead of making a conscious effort to change the way people view the past, and in the process imposing current values or agendas, musicians ought to encourage diversity and inclusivity via a different route. They should study and teach and perform the music that is most impactful, most influential, most imaginative, most intriguing. And although this approach demands much from musicians and requires a well-rounded education, the results will be invaluable. Historians, teachers, and performers will have a deeper, richer understanding of music, its history, and the world, and this in turn will make them better able to share music with their audiences.
. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.
. Laura Artesani, “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers into General Music Classes,” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).
. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Ninth edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), 461.
Artesani, Laura. “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers Into General Music Classes.” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).
Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Ninth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.
Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.
The following post is by guest author Caroline Bennett. Normally our musical columnist, she has expanded into U.S. history for today’s essay.
In most towns in the United States of America, preparations for July 4 begin nearly a month in advance. People become extra patriotic, swathing their front porches with bunting, lining the sides of their driveways with mini-American flags, and stockpiling fireworks. Reenactments and parades take place across the country on July 4, and Americans travel to be with family and enjoy hotdogs and pies. Independence Day is one of the most popular holidays celebrated in the United States, marking the day a group of men from thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, creating the foundation for the great nation that Americans know and love today. Considering how important Americans consider Independence Day, however, few realize that July 4, 1776, was not actually as important a day for American freedom as July 2 or even August 2, 1776. Many assume that the fading parchment exhibited in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. was written and signed on July 4, but in reality the process of declaring liberty from Great Britain spanned many years.
In the Course of Human Events
As American colonists became more and more restless under British rule in the 1770s, colonial leaders made the decision to coordinate the actions of the colonies by forming the Continental Congress (Thompson 190). The first Continental Congress convened briefly in the fall of 1774, and delegates from twelve colonies attended (Johnson 148). After the confrontation between colonists and British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, the second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia (Evans 229). A merchant from Massachusetts, John Hancock, presided over the Congress, and all thirteen colonies sent delegates. On July 7, 1775, the congress approved a declaration authorizing the use of force against England (190). Originally, Thomas Jefferson, a young Virginian lawyer, was to pen this declaration, but after his writing proved too inflammatory, John Dickinson, a solicitor from Pennsylvania, wrote a second draft (190). M. Stanton Evans, an American journalist and author, notes in his book The Theme Is Freedom that most American colonists were not eager to declare independence from Great Britain (229). Colonial leaders spent decades writing manifestos and demanding redress, and Dickinson’s declaration assured readers that the Continental Congress was not dissolving the union between the colonies and Great Britain (196).
To many delegates, separation from Great Britain was still an alien concept in 1775. Numerous congressional delegates feared the colonies would fall into chaos if they threw off the structure of British government (Johnson 154). John Adams, a Massachusetts lawyer, dismissed these fears and unofficially led a group of supporters of independence. Adams and his associates debated before Congress over the course of many months, attempting to convince the delegates that a separation from Great Britain was necessary (Evans 231). Indeed, it was nearly a year after Dickinson penned his declaration, in May 1776, that some of the Congressional delegates finally made motions to declare British power null and encourage the colonies to set up governments of their own (231).
Thomas Jefferson returned to Philadelphia on May 14, having been absent since the previous December (Evans 231). He arrived just in time. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the Virginia Assembly, asked Congress to “adopt a declaration of independence, prepare articles of confederation, and solicit ‘the assistance of foreign powers’” (Rakove 74). John Adams seconded Lee’s motion, and the following day the delegates renewed the debates on independence (McCullough 118). The delegates in support of independence were increasing in number, but still the Congress could not agree to declare the colonies free from Great Britain. On June 10, the delegates opposed to severing ties with Great Britain requested that the final vote be delayed until July 1, so that the Congressional delegates could send for new instructions from their colonies (McCullough 119). Congress agreed to the delay but appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of the colonies’ independence in the event that Congress voted in favor of the measure (Johnson 154).
Right of the People
Thomas Jefferson was the youngest member of the committee and had spent the least amount of time in Congress. Nevertheless, the committee nominated him to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Whatever the reasons of the committee, Jefferson’s appointment was fortuitous. His rhetorical eloquence is powerful and serves as a testament to his education and extensive reading. Nevertheless, total credit for the Declaration of Independence should not go to Jefferson alone. He was a part of a committee and wrote what his associates agreed upon. The Declaration of Independence was to be a corporate statement, after all, and it essentially summed up all the debates that had taken place in Congress over the past two years (Evans 232-233). David McCullough, a historian and lecturer, records in John Adams that Jefferson later wrote
Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, [the Declaration of Independence] was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. (121)
Because the Declaration
represented the opinions of many different men, colonies, and beliefs, it was
naturally influenced by a variety of sources. The colonial leaders certainly
found inspiration in the writings of philosopher John Locke, particularly in
the concepts from his Second Treatise of Government
(Rakove 78). Locke’s belief that people should throw off the authority of
their king or government after suffering repeated violations of their rights reflected
the influence of his heritage in the English common law, however. The English
common law was grounded in the idea that political authority came ultimately
from the people, and that kings and other magistrates were their agents (Evans
With centuries of history backing him, Jefferson wrote out the list of abuses charged against George III. Many people have speculated why the Declaration was addressed only to the king instead of the British Parliament. M. Stanton Evans points out that American colonists had never pledged allegiance to Parliament, only to the king of England, and therefore the Continental Congress only needed to address its sovereign (234). The reason for writing a declaration was simple: to let George III and the entire world know why the thirteen colonies could in good conscience throw off British rule and establish their own government. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the Declaration of Independence is a summary of George III’s violations of authority. The king had obstructed justice and rule of law, made it difficult for legislative bodies to meet, kept standing armies in the colonies during times of peace, held mock trials for his guilty subordinates, deprived many colonists of trial by jury—the list goes on and on (Thompson 204-205). These were not violations made only by George III, however; he had been king but sixteen years. The colonists were charging George III and his predecessors with failure in their duty to justly use the power their people had given them.
Once Jefferson finished
writing his draft, he and the committee revised it. Impressed by Jefferson’s
conciseness and clarity of thought, Franklin, Adams, Sherman, and Livingston
made mostly minor changes (McCullough 121-122). The concepts the declaration presented
were powerful and undeniable, and the committee did not alter them. Most of the
changes made the document easier to read. For instance, the committee altered
the wording of the famous second paragraph, replacing Jefferson’s phrase “we
hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” with the simpler “we hold these
truths to be self-evident” (121). The committee finished revising the draft of
the Declaration of Independence after a few days, and by June 28, 1776, Jefferson
and his associates were ready to present their Declaration of Independence to
Congress (Rakove 74).
To Throw Off Such Government
The second Continental Congress reconvened on July 1, and the debates on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to declare independence continued. John Dickinson said that severing ties with England was premature, but acknowledged that his was an unpopular opinion. Dickinson knew that in opposing independence, he was ruining his career, but he believed that “thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt” (McCullough 126). After Dickinson delivered his moving speech, Adams stood and “wished now as never in his life…that he had the fits of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome, for he was certain none of them ever had before him a question of greater importance” (126). Following Adams’ speech, other delegates took the floor, including John Witherspoon from New Jersey and Joseph Hewes from North Carolina. A preliminary vote followed the speeches. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Delaware voted against declaring independence, and the New York delegates abstained from the vote because they lacked instructions from their legislature (128). Though nine colonies favored independence, Adams and his associates hoped for a show of solidarity, and thus the final vote was postponed until the next day in hopes of more colonies changing their votes.
On July 2, 1776, the two
chairs reserved for the Pennsylvania delegates were empty. Delegates John
Dickinson and Robert Morris could not in good conscience vote in favor of
independence, but they also knew how important it was for Congress to speak
with one voice, so they absented themselves from the proceedings (McCullough
129). When the final vote was taken, New York once again abstained from the
vote, but South Carolina and Delaware changed sides. The colonies’ decision to
declare independence was unanimous, at least in the sense that no colony stood
opposed (129). Adams joyously wrote to his wife later that evening,
The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. (McCullough 130)
Free and Independent States
Now that the Congress was agreed to declare the colonies free of British rule, the delegates began revising and approving the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson and the committee had written. Once again, many of the changes were minor, largely focused on making the writing less verbose and toning down some of Jefferson’s language. All in all, the Congress made more than eighty changes to Jefferson’s draft (McCullough 134). In the end, the concluding line of the declaration read, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” (Thompson 207).
The final sentence of the Declaration of Independence reveals the feelings of the Congressional delegates. Casting accusations at the king of England and declaring the thirteen colonies free of British control was no laughing matter, and the Congress knew full well it might face disbandment or punishment for treason (Armor). Nevertheless, twelve of the colonies ratified the Declaration of Independence on Thursday, July 4, 1776. The New York delegates initially abstained from the vote, but their legislature later approved the declaration, ultimately making the vote for the Declaration of Independence unanimous among the colonies (Armor). On July 5, printers began making copies of the momentous document, and the Congressional delegates sent copies to friends and to their legislatures. On July 8, the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in the State House Yard in Philadelphia, and the Liberty Bell was rung (Johnson 156).
The Declaration of Independence was not yet complete, however. A copy of the declaration was “elegantly engrossed on a single, giant sheet of parchment by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress” (McCullough 137). On Friday, August 2, most of the Congressional delegates convened to sign the Declaration of Independence. Once more, there was no fuss or ceremony, and the delegates simply stepped forward and fixed their signatures. John Hancock, as president of the Congress, made his signature in the middle of the document, using large, flowing strokes. A number of other important delegates were noticeably absent—Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Oliver Wolcott, Elbridge Gerry. They signed later. A new member of Congress from New Hampshire, Matthew Thornton, fixed his signature in November 1776, and Thomas McKean of Delaware signed in January 1777 (138). Approving the declaration had been seditious enough. Now the delegates were writing their names on it—undoubtedly a treasonous act. As a result, the signing of the document remained a secret for some time (Armor).
The legal process of
severing ties with Great Britain was concluded after the signing of the
Declaration of Independence, but seven years would pass, and thousands of men
would die, before the thirteen United States of America were truly independent.
Nevertheless, Americans began celebrating their liberty and freedom just one year
after the second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, 1778, a few local celebrations took place (Armor). After the
surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Americans began more extensive
celebrations. Despite Adams’ conviction that July 2 would be commemorated, July
4 inexplicably became the day that Americans chose to celebrate their
independence. In 1873, Pennsylvania became the first state to officially recognize
July 4 as Independence Day (Armor). Other states followed suit soon after, and
eventually Independence Day became a federal holiday in the United States of
For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a holiday that takes place in the heat of summer, involves fireworks and parades, and celebrates American independence. Many believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, a day that ushered in celebrations and the ringing of the Liberty Bell. Declaring independence was not that simple, however. The truth is that numerous colonial leaders left their families and homes for months on end, argued with one another for years about the right course of action, and struggled with their personal doubts and fears. The Congressional delegates put their lives on the line by voting for independence, voting to approve the Declaration of Independence, and affixing their signatures to the same document. The delegates knew that what they were doing would go down in history, but they did not know whether they would be remembered as defeated traitors or as victorious American patriots. The delegates would probably not care what day Americans have chosen to celebrate independence. The second Continental Congress did not meet in Philadelphia in order to be remembered, but in order to give future generations of Americans a government that prized life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Armor, John. “‘Independence’ Day, Past and Present.” World & I 11.7 (1996): 72. History Reference Center. Web. 26 June 2016.
Evans, M. Stanton. The Theme Is Freedom. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994. Print.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York, NY: Perennial-HarperCollins, 1997. Print.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Print.
Rakove, Jack N., and States United. The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration Of Independence. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 June 2016.
Thompson, Bruce, ed. The Revolutionary Period: 1750-1783. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Print.
We are excited to welcome back our guest author Caroline Bennett! Read on to enjoy her latest music-related contribution.
Music historian James Webster posits that, “One cannot think about, still less investigate, the ceaseless, infinitely complex flow of historical events without segmenting them into time spans.” Webster was speaking of the Classical-Romantic divide in music, but structure in any discipline allows people to understand concepts for themselves. Perhaps more importantly, it enables them to share this knowledge and communicate with others more easily. Thus, dividing music history into distinct periods is logical. The separation between with Classical and Romantic musical eras continues to be useful because it allows people to easily communicate with others by providing the structure and context necessary to better appreciate and interpret music.
Musicians can compartmentalize music history in many ways, and when appropriate they can use different methods of periodization. Ultimately, however, music history should be organized in a way that is easy for others to grasp. Although Webster is dissatisfied with the standard division between the “Classical” and “Romantic” eras, suggesting that historians label the late 18th through early 19th centuries as “First Viennese Modernism,” there are significant advantages to adhering to the traditional periods. Music historians do share their findings amongst themselves, but also with other musicians or students who are not as familiar with historical details. Thus it is important that the historical narrative be divided in such a way that related composers, musical works, and concepts are grouped together. The divisions should not be so minute, however, that they become difficult to understand or distinguish. Webster notes that periodization is like a story’s plot because both create a narrative. This is a useful way to think about how intricate the divisions in music history should generally be. In a standard plot, the more layers and partitions there are, the less focused the intention of the story becomes and the harder it is for the reader to understand and appreciate the story as a whole. Novels with complex layers, numerous descriptions, and a multitude of characters are often worthwhile, but only inviting and accessible to a select audience. Choosing a simpler periodization may seem inadequate, but Webster acknowledges that “even if the understanding of historical phenomena that periods offer is always partial and self-interested, the only alternative is—no understanding at all.” Music historians, when writing for themselves or for a very specific audience, should create as detailed a structure as they wish. Nevertheless, because music history is usually meant to be shared with a diverse audience, its divisions and layers should be more straightforward.
Dividing the Classical
and Romantic eras allows teachers and students to better distinguish the
predominant characteristics of music in those time periods. Although concepts
carried over from the Classical era to the Romantic, in general the thematic
material, harmonic structure, and messages of the music were different. For
example, Mozart wrote in 1781 that music must “give pleasure and never offend
the ear” else it would not be music. Many
composers in the 1700s used music to simply represent concepts and emotions,
not to actually provoke the audience’s feelings. In his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck wrote Orfeo’s
lament in C major and if it were not for the libretto the aria would not sound
sad at all. The orchestral accompaniment is rather energetic and the vocal
melody could easily pass as a love song. Although composers did begin to add
more and more feeling into their music over the course of the 18th
century, audiences still found Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major,
written in 1803, rather overwhelming in its magnitude and confusing in its
modulations and overall structure. The first movement’s development was
significantly longer than the exposition and the coda nearly equaled the length
of the exposition. Furthermore, the first movement modulated abruptly to unexpected
keys and certain passages had distinctly dissonant harmonies. Values in music
continued to change after the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, however. By the
time music critic E.T.A. Hoffman analyzed Beethoven’s instrumental music in
1813, many audiences were beginning to appreciate music that made them feel uncomfortable.
For example, Hoffman was very pleased that Beethoven’s music could “destroy” a
listener and stir up a sense of “endless longing.”
This transition from Mozart’s view to Hoffman’s was gradual, so putting Mozart
squarely in the “Classical” era or composers after Beethoven in the “Romantic”
era is somewhat messy. Nevertheless, as long as teachers and students bear in
mind that historical events are actually a progression, it is safe to simply label
segments of the 18th and 19th centuries as “Classical” or
When composers like
Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner are grouped together, people
can easily make connections between the pieces, and musicians have an innate
concept of how to approach the music. For example, some of Mozart’s
compositions show the direct influence of Haydn, including his Symphony No. 36
in C Major, which audiences can more easily discern when they already expect
Mozart and Haydn to be similar. Romantic composers are connected by a number of
commonalities, but especially by the influence that philosophers such as
Immanuel Kant had on music, art, and culture. In contrast to the philosophers
of the 17th and early 18th centuries, who promoted the
use of reason, philosophers like Kant argued for a more subjective approach.
This ultimately influenced Romantic composers like Wagner. Not only did Wagner
write more for his own purposes and pleasure, but he also sought to make his
music excite the emotions of audience members. In Tristan und Isolde Wagner did not pander to the music critics or
write what was popular; instead he used the harmonies and melodies that he
personally believed to be the most effective in expressing the desired emotions.
Because he wished to show that the characters were full of longing, Wagner
frequently delayed the resolution to the tonic and incorporated unusual chromaticism.
This effectively creates a sense of unease and longing in the actual listener.
Because musicians are aware the Romantic composers typically sought to express
emotions in music and kindle the same emotions in audience members, these
artists can approach Romantic pieces understanding that they must use dynamics,
rubato, and the like to create the composers’ desired effect.
argument for a more precise periodization of music history in the 18th
and 19th centuries has a place in analyses, the accepted
Classical-Romantic divide is still relevant today. No periodization is perfect,
but because divisions in history are inevitable music historians should aim to
choose a periodization structure that shares knowledge the most
effectively. The simple distinction
between the Classical and Romantic era is easy for audiences to grasp—whether
they are musicians or not—because of the contextual information that it
instantly provides. This means that people can more easily make connections
between composers, compositions, and historical events. Consequently, audiences
will have a richer understanding and appreciation of music.
Hoffman, E.T.A. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited
by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 1193-98. New York: W. W. Norton &
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “Letters to His Father.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 965-70. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism
in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th
Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.
1. James Webster, “Between
Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we end the first month of a new year, it is valuable to contemplate God’s grace and amazing love for his people. In the following article, Caroline Bennett reviews CDs by three different Christian artists which focus on praising God and seeing his steadfast love everywhere.
O my Strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love. -Psalm 59: 17 (ESV)
Though music of all genres can cause Christians to rejoice in the Lord, music written specifically to praise God can be especially edifying. There are many Christian artists out there, so it can be rather difficult to figure out whose music to listen to. A good way to decide is to ask two questions: are the lyrics thought-provoking and in accordance with Scripture, and is the music interesting and well written? Mosaic, Storm, and Rise in the Darkness are three albums featuring songs that answer “yes” to these questions.
Though most famous for his bluegrass tunes, Ricky Skaggs demonstrated his ability to cover more than one genre when he released Mosaic five years ago. The first song, the titular track, is a grand introduction into the themes Skaggs sings about throughout the album: the grace, providence, and everlasting faithfulness of God. It reminds Christians that though their roles in this world may seem small and insignificant—a mere shard of colored glass— they need to look at the bigger, more glorious picture of God’s redemptive plan. Every song on Mosaic revolves around this idea, but each has a unique sound and story to tell. One of the most creative songs on the album is “My Cup Runneth Over,” with lyrics that help Christians understand Psalm 23 anew: “You ask is it half empty / you ask is it half full /… If I give a different answer/ would you think of me a fool / It’s none of the above/ ‘cause it’s all of the above | My cup runneth over….His love poured out for me.” The wonderful thing about Mosaic is that one can listen to the album over and over again, and still realize something new and wonderful about the songs every time. And Mosaic only has a tinge of bluegrass to it, so even Christians who don’t care for bluegrass should still be able to enjoy listening to this powerful album.
Another album that praises God for his mercy is Storm, released in 2002 by Christian artist Fernando Ortega. The album features a mix of old hymns—“Jesus Paid it All,” “Come Ye Sinners”—as well as new songs written by Ortega. The combination of Ortega’s voice, the piano, the guitar, and other instruments creates a lush sound that is a trademark of Ortega’s albums. Storm is suitable for all occasions. As its name implies, it is wonderful music for dreary weather, for its songs of redemption drive away all melancholy. The album is also quite fitting for those on the road with the opening track “Traveler.” However, the chorus of this song reveals that this is more than just a road trip song; it is a song that Christians need to voice every day: “Heavenly Father, / Remember the traveler / Bring us safely home / Safely home.”
Nathan Clark George is another Christian songwriter and performer who has released a number of albums in the past decade. Rise in the Darkness is one of his best, featuring a variety of songs. On it, George does an amazing job of putting almost word-for-word Scripture passages to music, such as Psalm 127 and Isaiah 58. Yet Rise in the Darkness also features songs he has written lyrics for, including “What if I Were in the Garden?” In this song George admits that, although he would like to think that he would have been faithful to Jesus on the night of his arrest, he would have been just as weak as the disciples. Nevertheless, George rejoices in the thought that, despite his great depravity, God has poured his love out on him and shown him grace. George also performs arrangements of the well-known hymns “Not What My Hands Have Done” and “Nettleton.” Though George’s songs tend to be very quiet and contemplative—he is most often accompanied by acoustic instruments like the guitar and violin—Rise in the Darkness is nevertheless a loud witness to Christ’s work on the cross, and reminds Christians of their need to exhibit God’s love and mercy to others.
Mosaic, Storm, and Rise in the Darkness are wonderful albums for many reasons. They are well done musically, with beautiful melodies and instrumentation. Best of all, however, is the message they propound: man is a sinner, desperately needing a Savior, and God has shown his love to his people by sending Christ Jesus. When Christians listen to these three albums, they can truly rejoice with the psalmist in the God who “shows steadfast love.”
♪ George, Nathan Clark. Rise in the Darkness. Nathan Clark George, 2006.
♪ Ortega, Fernando. Storm. Word Entertainment, 2002.
♪ Skaggs, Ricky. Mosaic. Skaggs Family Records, 2010.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”—Luke 2: 13-14 (ESV)
One of the best parts of the Christmas season is the music. Because so many carols, hymns, and songs have been written about Christ’s birth, it’s almost impossible to enjoy them all before Christmas is over. My family has a vast collection of Christmas albums, and every year directly after Thanksgiving we get them out and start listening to them. All of the CDs are different, and all have their special places in our hearts, for the amazing thing about Christmas songs is that they can be of all styles and moods, and yet all tell the same wonderful story.
If you are in the mood for choral music, John Rutter and Robert Shaw have recorded many Christmas albums. One of Rutter’s best recordings is Christmas Star, which features the Cambridge Singers and Orchestra performing much loved hymns like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” and “Joy To the World,” as well as lesser known songs like “’Twas in the Moon of Winter Time,” and “O Little One Sweet.” Robert Shaw’s A Festival of Carols has many of the same songs as Christmas Star, but the arrangements and overall sound are completely different, oftentimes more dramatic. A Festival of Carols features a number of medleys, allowing the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra to squeeze as many carols onto the album as possible.
For a simpler but equally beautiful compilation of Christmas songs, listen to Angels’ Glory, a collaboration between soprano Kathleen Battle and guitarist Christopher Parkening. The album features many different pieces, ranging from spirituals to Spanish and French carols to lullabies to traditional hymns. Kathleen Battle also performs on A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, a live performance given in 1991 by soprano Frederica von Stade, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, conductor Andre Previn, two choirs, a jazz septet, and an orchestra. The album features numbers like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Evening Prayer,” “Maria Weigenleid,” “Winter Wonderland,” and medleys of Christmas spirituals and traditional carols.
Josh Groban’s Noël features much of the typical Christmas fare— “Ave Maria,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The Christmas Song,” “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”—but the soaring, luscious arrangements featuring the piano, orchestra, guitar, and choirs, along with Groban’s voice, make these well-known pieces fresh and new. Even “Silent Night,” a piece every recording artist performs at some point, stands apart on this album due to its exquisite arrangement.
But even fresh arrangements of standard Christmas songs can’t get you all the way through the month of December. Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson is an album of twelve songs, and only three of them are traditional carols; all the rest are original compositions by Peterson. That’s not what sets this album apart, however. From the opening song to the closing, Peterson tells the wonderful story of how God redeemed his people by sending his Son to be born of a woman. Through songs like “Passover Us,” and “Deliver Us,” Peterson shows how Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a picture of how God frees his people from sin; in “So Long, Moses,” Peterson reminds listeners that God raised up many leaders for his people, but none could compare with the Christ; “Matthew’s Begats” is a fun way to learn Jesus’ genealogy; “Labor of Love” is a tender song showing how the night of Jesus’ birth was not as idyllic as we would like to think; “Behold the Lamb of God” declares the glorious hope sinners have in the Messiah.
The lyrics for the songs on Behold the Lamb of God make the album very powerful, but sometimes we need more relaxing, contemplative music. That’s where Carol McClure’s A Harp Noel and Susan Beisner’s Silent Word come into the picture. McClure’s arrangements of classic Christmas hymns are beautifully soothing, and she uses the harp’s wide range of sounds and techniques to full advantage. Susan Beisner performs eleven complex piano arrangements of hymns on Silent Word, beautifully interpreting pieces like “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and creating medleys of well-known carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
There are many Christmas albums out there, but I find that every time December rolls around these are the ones I listen to the most often. Some of them are rather nostalgic, for I have listened to them all my life; others are new favorites due to their originality and beauty. But these eight albums are so much more than just pretty music. They tell a wonderful, deep story that makes the bleakest winter day a day to rejoice.
♪Battle, Kathleen and Christopher Parkening. Angels’ Glory. Sony Classics, 1996.
♪Beisner, Susan. Silent Word. Parnassum Music, 2006.
♪Groban, Josh. Noël. Reprise Records, 2007.
♪McClure, Carol. A Harp Noel. Coventry Music, 2001.
♪Peterson, Andrew. Behold the Lamb of God. Word Entertainment, 2004.
♪Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. A Festival of Carols. RCA Gold Label, 1987.
♪Rutter, John and the Cambridge Singers. Christmas Star. Collegium Records, 1997.
♪Von Stade, Frederica, Kathleen Battle, and Wynton Marsalis. A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert. Sony Classical, 1992.