Thursday, June 21, 2007

More Composers: P

EDIT: Of course I left out the Renaissance master Praetorius (Michael), who besides writing 9 volumes of early Lutheran music (Musae Sionae), also left behind a huge book of secular dances (Terpsichore) and an encycolpedic treatise on the music of his time (Syntagma musicum). We Lutherans still cherish some of the tunes Praetorius wrote or transmitted, including those sung to the hymns "On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry," "The Bridegroom soon will call us," "Lo, how a Rose ere blooming," and "He whom shepherds once came praising." I advise you to buy yourself, and everyone else you know, a copy of this CD of a Lutheran Christmas service based on Praetorius's music and the performance practice of his time. It is absolutely stunning. And now, back to my previously posted list...
Pachelbel (Johann) is now mostly known for that slow but pretty Canon in D, which is really more of a chaconne (variations over an ostinato bass line), often heard at weddings. Only recently has Pachelbel begun to emerge from obscurity, proving to be a very important Baroque keyboard composer whose organ fugues, fantasias, and chorale preludes are both beautiful and idiomatic (i.e., they are easier to play than they sound; they "fall under the hands.") Pachelbel has been very helpful to me as an organist!

Paganini (Niccolò) played both guitar and viola, but it was his violin artistry that made him a legend; some say he was the greatest virtuoso of all time. What kind of composer was he? Well, he was a great violinist. His music, including a dozen violin sonatas, 6 violin concertos, and 24 Caprices for unaccompanied violin, are designed to show off a virtuoso's virtuosity. He raised the standard of playing and composing for the violin, but his music is seldom heard except in the form of other composers' variations on the theme of his A minor Caprice.

Paisiello (Giovanni) was a vehemently ambitious composer of the Napoleonic period. He wrote eight masses, 94 operas, and tons of other music, and in the process clawed his way to the top of the musical establishments in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Naples, and Paris. In the process he sent several highly successful composers into career oblivion. But he got his in the end. Now he is mostly known for writing the first hugely successful opera version of The Barber of Seville - a classically graceful piece which, when Rossini came out with his Romantic comedy on the same libretto, was still so highly regarded that Rossini's work was booed off the stage. Rossini's Barber has since settled near the top of the list of most-cherished operas, while one now hears only excerpted arias by Paisiello, or other composers' variations on them.

Palestrina (Giovanni Pierluigi da) was perhaps the greatest 16th-century composer. It is a gross understatement to say that his polyphonic vocal works have profoundly influenced subsequent composers. His music is the standard by which Renaissance polyphony is studied and imitated. It helps that he followed certain rules very consistently, while at the same time writing music that is simply wonderful to hear. He wrote over 100 masses, roughly 500 other sacred choral works (motets, hymns, magnificats, etc.), 140 secular pieces (madrigals), and perhaps a little keyboard music too. There has been an opera based on Palestrina's life; and among his compositions still regularly heard is the hymn tune "Victory" ("The strife is o'er, the battle done").

Parker (Alice) is an American composer best known for her arrangements of American spirituals and folk-hymns, many of them written for the great choral conductor Robert Shaw (not to be confused with the actor by that name). I have heard and/or sung many of her pieces, and I can't say better of them than that they sound as if they wrote themselves.

Pärt (Arvo) is a mystical Estonian composer, best known for his somewhat minimalistic sacred choral music, such as the Passion According to St. John, and some of his orchestral pieces that have been used in feature films, such as the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. I was first encouraged to listen to Pärt's music by an enthusiastic fellow-seminarian who is a composer himself. I wish them both the best.

Penderecki (Krzysztof) is a Polish composer whose St. Luke Passion and Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima are probably going to be considered great works of the 20th century. They are avante-garde, experimental works, but highly effective; I personally consider the Threnody the most terrifying piece of music I have ever heard. He has also written symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, cello, viola, flute, oboe, and clarinet, and other notable sacred pieces, some of which are occasionally sampled by film soundtracks and pop singers.

Piston (Walter) wrote the book on music - literally. His book on harmony was handed to me when I was in high school, and was for me (and many other American musicians) the first taste of the great and underappreciated discipline of music theory. He also wrote 8 symphonies; a concerto for orchestra; concertos for piano, violin, and viola; a very fine clarinet concerto (which I recently heard played live); and the famous Three New England Sketches. His chamber music is also worthy of note, including 5 string quartets. His music won many awards (including two Pulitzers), and was written in such neat handwriting that his publishers didn't bother with typesetting.

Ponchielli (Amilcare) was an opera composer now remembered for only one work, La Gioconda (ten points for remembering who wrote the libretto). This greatest Italian "grande opera" contains several beloved numbers, including the "Dance of the Hours," celebrated with tippy-toe crocodiles, elephants, ostriches, and hippos in Disney's Fantasia. If you still don't know what I'm talking about, maybe you've heard Allan Sherman's spoof "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh." Same tune.

Poulenc (Francis) is the last of Les Six of whom I will speak. This group of composers gathered around avante-garde artist/actor/filmmaker Jean Cocteau in the wee years of the 20th century. Which is just the extreme example of several cases of a collective of composers being led (if not tyrannized) by the least composer among them; Cocteau was no composer at all! For more on this phenomenon, see also Balakirev. A composer on the lighter side of classic music, Poulenc's music seldom sounded far from a Parisian dance-hall, even in such sacred pieces as the well-known Gloria from his Mass in G. He wrote concertos for one and two pianos, organ, and harpsichord, operas (including Dialogues of the Carmelites), songs, and chamber music (including sonatas for cello, violin, oboe, flute, and clarinet).

Puccini (Giacomo) is a composer far too important to belong on this list; he is here because I inexplicably forgot to mention him earlier. His operas, some of which which belong to the same verismo school as the aforementioned Giordano and Leoncavallo, are of colossal importance: Tosca, La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot (completed by Alfano after Puccini's death), and Il trittico (a triptych of one-act operas, including Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi). I have personally heard only a handful of operas live on stage, but perhaps it is a tribute to Puccini's dramatic power and musical beauty that two of them were by him (Butterfly and La fanciulla del West). When writing his opera Manon Lescaut, also the subject of an opera by Massenet, Puccini said: "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion."

Purcell (Henry) was a 17th-century English composer who did not live past the age of 35. Nevertheless his opera Dido and Aeneas was a watershed in English music, and almost the first opera in the English language. He also wrote theatre music for spoken-word plays, operas with spoken dialogue, and England's first Te Deum with orchestra. His Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary was quoted in the film A Clockwork Orange, and until quite recently, a popular wedding march ("Trumpet Voluntary") was erroneously attributed to Purcell. (The actual composer, Jeremiah Clarke, had an even shorter life, and far more tragic death, than Purcell's).

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