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It's Women's History Month and this year's theme is Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, so I thought I would begin the month with a new picture book for older readers that introduces them to the remarkable International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
In 1909, near Jackson, Mississippi a school/orphanage called Piney Woods Country Life School was started by Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones for African American girls.
The girls were educated, housed, clothed and fed and in return they all did chores to help keep things running smoothly and well. In 1939, Dr. Jones started a band that he called the Sweethearts with some musically talented girls to help raise money for the school. The music they played was called swing or big band music, by either name it was Jazz and people couldn't get enough of it.
Dean describes how the girls stayed together after leaving Piney Woods, hoping to make a living as musicians. They would live, sleep, eat and play music, traveling around from gig to gig in a bus they called Big Bertha. Band members came and went, and before long the band was no longer made up of only African American women, but included many races and nationalities. As a result, they decided to call themselves the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
But while the band hit the big time, they still didn't get paid as much as their male counterparts nor were they taken as seriously, no matter how good they were. Not only that, Dean points out, but in the Jim Crow south, because they were interracial now, traveling and performing became risky and she includes some of those scary, dangerous incidents they faced.
In 1945, as World War II was winding down, the Sweethearts found themselves on a USO tour thanks to a letter writing campaign by African American soldiers. But sadly, the Sweethearts disbanded after the war and the members went their separate ways.
Dean does an excellent job of introducing the Sweethearts to her young readers and the difficulties an all-women's interracial band faced back in the 1940s balancing it with positive events and the strong bonds of friendship among all the members.
Cepeda's colorful acrylic and oil painted illustrations match the energy of the music the Sweethearts played with a bright rainbow palette of greens, pinks, purples, yellows, blues and orange.
So many wonderful books are coming out now introducing young readers to some of the greatest artists and musicians of the 20th century and this book is such a welcome addition.
This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was bought for my personal library
You can see for yourself just how good the Sweethearts were in their heyday:
In 2005, Ms magazine published a conversation between pop singer Lesley Gore and Kathleen Hanna of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Hanna opened with a striking statement: “First time I heard your voice,” she said, “I went and bought everything of yours – trying to imitate you but find my own style.”
At a Glance:
I started listening to City and Colour when I was about 12-years-old. I remember listening to his new album (at the time 2012) and loved it. I was really into music during this time, I was listening to all new music but it was all rock/metal music. The mix is really good, he has one of the best voices I've ever heard, and great music for just chilling with friends or reading a
Popular music is much more than mere entertainment—it helps us make sense of who we are or who we hope to be. Although music is but one of pop culture’s media outlets, our tendency to embody and take ownership of sound—whether through our headphones, MP3 downloads, dancing, or singing—often makes it difficult to separate our personal connection to popular music from the cultural context in which it was created.
A new highly interactive early literacy storytime featuring instrument exploration, songs, fingerplays, dance and books for ages 3 and up.
Chandra and Sheila playing the drums. photo by Paige Bentley-Flannery
Created by Community Librarians Sheila Grier and Chandra vanEijinsbergen, Music, Movement, and Stories (MnMS for short) is one of my favorite new children’s programs for ages 3-5 at Deschutes Public Library. The music cd’s, books, and musical instruments circulate between all six branches. The program includes two stories and lots of dancing, singing and playing musical instruments.
I joined Sheila and Chandra in our Early Learning Space at the Downtown Bend Library and we made some noise! We talked about the most asked about questions and shared favorite books and ideas.
How did MnMS start?
“Music Movement and Stories started when I began to read about doing a music program at our library and wondered why most music programs at libraries do not include the great books we have about music, dancing or sing-along books. We can feature these books along with our cd collection,” says Sheila.
Do you use a different theme each week? (scarves flying around…)
Chandra vanEijinsbergen, Community Librarian photo by Paige Bentley-Flannery
Chandra VanEijinsbergen says, “Some of the librarians do. Like with regular story time, I like the idea of using themes in MnMS. Some themes came together naturally, for example farms. Easy to find both books and songs about farms and farm animals. Food was more difficult- books were easy and songs to use with shakers or musical instruments, were sort of easy.”
When do you offer MnMS?
“We do MnMS on a different day than our regular story times, Baby Steps, Toddlin Tales and Preschool Parade,” says Sheila
What is your story time structure?
Two movement songs
Story (book or felt board)
Two musical prop songs – ribbons, scarves, bean bags, hoops, etc.
Story (book or felt board)
Two musical instrument songs
Ideas for handing out and getting materials back?
“Sing a song”, says Sheila. For example, Kathy Reid-Naiman’s “I’m Passing Out the Sticks” & “Time to Put Away”. “Talk about the instrument or prop as you are handing them out. Put a container in the middle of the room, they will happily return items.”
Any great tips to share?
Sheila Grier, Community Librarian photo by Paige Bentley-Flannery
Sheila’s tip: Telling the parents that it’s ok to look silly and dance it’s a must, their child, grandchild will think they are wonderful and mimic what the adult is doing. I love seeing the dads and grandpas dancing.
Chandra’s tip: Remove chairs from the story time space. This encourages caregivers to sit and participate with their child. If you have a smaller group, sitting in a circle is nice.
Paige’s tip: Take over the whole story time room. Wiggle, shake, shimmy, jump and march across the room backwards.
Thank you Sheila and Chandra! Check out their recommended books and music below!
Traditional Song Picture Books
Down by the Station by Will Hillenbrand
Hush Little Baby by Sylvia Long
Old MacDonald by Jessica Souihami
On Top of Spaghetti by Paul Johnson
Over in the Meadow by Jill McDonald
Pete the Cat Wheels on the Bus by James Dean
Ten in the Den by John Butler
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by Sylvia Long
By Jane Cabrera
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
Row Row Row Your Boat
If You’re Happy and You Know It
Ten in the Bed
Wheels on the Bus
by Iza Trapani
Baa Baa Black Sheep
The Bear Went over the Mountain
Here we Go Round the Mulberry Bush
How Much is that Doggy in the Window
Itsy Bitsy Spider *
I’m a Little Tea Pot
Row Row Row Your Boat
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
MnMns Photo by Tina D.
Scarves or Ribbons
Wiggle Song by Dragon Tales from Dragon Tales-
Freeze by Michael Plunkett from Shakin the Chute
Fast Slow by Laura Berkner from the Best of
Parachute (or ribbons)
Got the Wiggles by Michael Plunkett from Ribbons and Rhythms
Long Ribbons by Michael Plunkett from Ribbons and Rhythms
Shake Your Reader Ribbons by Pam Schiller from Leaping Literacy
Ribbon Dance by Michael Plunkett from Rhyme and Rhyme movement
Beanie Bag Dance by Greg and Steve from Kids in Action
Bean Bag Boogie by Learning Station from Me and My Bean Bag
Bean Bag Rock by Georgiana Stewart from Action Songs for Preschoolers
The Bean Bag by Hap Palmer from Can a Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet
Baby Danced the Polka by Karen Beaumont
Croaky Pokey by Ethan Long
Dance with me by Charles Smith Jr.
Dancing Feet or Farmyard Beat by Linda Craig
Dancing in my Bones by Sylvia Andrews
Down by the Cool of the Pool by Tony Mitton
Hilda Must be Dancing by Karma Wilson
Listening and Free Dance Songs
Wiggle Walk by Georgiana Stewart from Toddlerific
Jump Jump by Lolly Hollywood from Go! Go! Go!
March Around by Lolly Hollywood from Go! Go! Go!
Put Your Little Foot by Carole Peterson from Dancing Feet
My Energy by Laura Berkner from Under a Shady Tree
Jump Up by from Imagination Movers
The Wiggle Song by Carole Peterson from Sticky Bubblegum
Rock and Roll Freeze Dance by Hap Palmer from So Big
Clap Your Hands by Singalong Kidz from Singalong Kidz
Parachute (or ribbons)
Clap Your Hands by Kathy Reid Naiman from Preschool Songs 1
Walking Walking by Ann Marie Akin from Songs for Wiggleworms
Put Your Finger On by Parachute Express from Feel the Music
Stretch! by Dragon Tales from Dragon Tales
Clap Clap Clap Your Hands by Carole Peterson from Sticky Bubble Gum
Statues by Georgiana Stewart from Action Songs for Preschoolers
Hands are for Clapping by Jim Gill from Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and other contagious tunes
Twist Stop Hop by Ronno from Jump Start Action Songs
I Can Do It by Patty Shukla from I Can Do It
Say & Rhyme by Pam Schiller from Leaping Literacy
I Can Dance by Ronno from Jump Start Action Songs
Spaghetti Legs by Jim Gill from Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and other contagious tunes
Warm Up Time by Georgiana Stewart from Action Songs for Preschools
The Freeze by Steve and Greg from We All Live Together
The Airplane Song by Laura Berkner from Whaddya Think of That
I have a little scarf by Eine Kleine NachtMusick from Moving with Mozart
Dancing Scarf Blues by Carole Peterson from Dancing Feet
Bell Horses by Kathy Reid Naiman from I Love to Hear the Sounds
Tideo By Kathy Reid Naiman from More Tickle Tunes
Oh children ring your bells by Kathy Reid Naiman from I love to hear the Sounds
Ring them on the Floor by Kathy Reid Naiman from I love to hear the Sounds
Nursery Rhyme Tap by Pam Schiller from Leaping Literacy
Tap your Sticks By Hap Palmer from Rhymes on Parade
When the Saints Come Marching in by Georgiana Stewart from Rhythm Sticks Rock
Sticks on the Move by Georgiana Stewart from Rhythm Sticks Rock
Rhythm Stick March by Michael Plunkett from Rhythm Stick Rap and Tap
Chim, Chimmy Chimpanze By Pam Schiller from Leaping Literacy
Milkshake by Anne– Marie Akin from Songs for Wiggleworms
We’re going to the Market by Kathy Reid-Naiman from I Love to Hear the Sounds
Shaker Hop by Carole Peterson from Dancing feet
For more great MnMS recommendations, please email Sheila Grier at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paige Bentley-Flannery is a Community Librarian at Deschutes Public Library. For over fifteen years–from Seattle Art Museum to the New York Public Library to the Deschutes Public Library-Paige’s passion and creative style for art, poetry and literature have been combined with instructing, planning, and providing information. Paige is currently serving on the ALSC Notable Children’s Book Committee, 2015 – 2017. She is a former Chair of the ALSC Digital Content Task Force and member of the ALSC Great Websites Committee.
‘I write arrangements, I’m sort of a wannabe composer’ – consciously or otherwise, these words from violinist Joshua Bell seem to give voice to the tension between these two interlocking musical activities. For arrangement and composition are interlocked, as composers throughout the ages have arranged, adapted, revised, and generally played free with musical compositions of all kinds (their own and other people’s) for reasons artistic, practical, or downright commercial.
In between having a child and filming a ton of great movies, Johansson found the time to start a “Girl Group” called The Singles, that includes Este Haim, Julia Haltigan, Kendra Morris, and Holly Miranda. Their first song, “Candy”, which you can hear over at Vice, was produced by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek.
There’s some serious 80’s Synth-Pop influence there, and a danceable beat. Fun!
If this is how the year is starting out, it's going to be a banner year for middle-grade books. First, Gordon Korman's Masterminds (more on that fantastic new thriller another day) and now Echo: A Novel.
Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2015. Echo: A Novel. New York: Scholastic.
I received an Advance Reader Copy of Echo from Scholastic and was intrigued that it was wrapped in musical notation paper and had a smartly-boxed Hohner Blues Band harmonica tied to it.
I was happy to see an apparently music-related book, and what somewhat surprised to find that Echo begins with a fairytale, "The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger," a fairytale replete with abandoned princesses, a magical forest, a mean-spirited witch, and a prophecy,
"Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."
Though brief, I became enthralled with the tale and was surprised and taken aback when I reached Part One and found myself not in the fairytale forest, but in
Trossingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1933, home to the world's oldest harmonica manufacturer. I couldn't wait to find out what became of the abandoned princesses, but soon found myself wrapped up in the story of young Friedrich Schmidt, a German Jew during Hitler's ascendance to power. This kind-hearted, young boy of a musical family was surely destined to be gathered up in the anti-Semitic wave sweeping through Germany. I became engrossed in Friedrich's story, anxiously hoping that things would work out for him and his family, and was again surprised when I reached Part Two and found myself in
Philadelphia, 1935, home of the then-famous Albert Hoxie and the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, and of the Bishop's Home for Friendless and Destitute Children, where I found myself in the company of piano-playing orphans, Mike and Frankie Flannery. Their story was no less heart-wrenching than Friedrich's, and I found myself desperately rooting for the young boys when I suddenly arrived
in a migrant worker's community in Southern California, 1942, where young Ivy Maria Lopez was about to play her harmonica on the Colgate Family Hour radio show, but her excitement was short-lived. I fell in with this hard-working, American family and hoped, along with Ivy, for her brother's safe return from the war.
Of course, there's more, but this is where I will leave off.
Pam Muñoz Ryan has written a positively masterful story that will take the reader from the realm of magic through the historical travails of the infirm, the oppressed, and the poor in the midst of the 20th century. Through it all, music gathers the stories together in a symphony of hope and possibility. In music, and in Echo, there is a magic that will fill your soul.
It may only be February, but I predict that praise for Echo will continue throughout the year.
Among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture were two films with drum scores: Whiplash, in which a highly regarded but abusive conductor molds an aspiring young jazz musician into the genius he was meant to be, and Birdman, in which an aging film actor who was never a genius at all stars in a play and possibly flies. In spite of their innovative soundtracks, neither film received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
The scraps of an archive often speak in ways that standard histories cannot. In 2005, I spent my days at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, a leading archive for twentieth-century concert music, where I transcribed the papers of the German-Jewish émigré composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1971). The task was alternately exhilarating and grim. Wolpe had made fruitful connections with creators and thinkers across three continents, from Paul Klee to Anton Webern to Hannah Arendt to Charlie Parker. An introspective storyteller and exuberant synthesizer of ideas, Wolpe narrated a history of modernism in migration as a messy, real-time chronicle in his correspondence and diaries. Yet, within this narrative, the composer had also reckoned with more than his share of death and loss as a multiply-displaced Nazi-era refugee. He had preserved letters from friends as symbols of the ties that had sustained him, in some cases carrying them over dozens of precarious border crossings during his 1933 flight. By the 1950s, his circumstances had calmed down, after he had settled in New York following some years in Mandatory Palestine. Amidst his mid-century papers, I was surprised to come across a cache of artfully spaced poems typewritten on thick leaves of paper, with the attribution “Yoko Ono.” The poems included familiar, stark images of death, desolation, and flight. It was only later that I realized they responded not to Wolpe’s life history, but likely to Ono’s own. The poems inspired a years-long path of research that culminated in my article, “Limits of National History: Yoko Ono, Stefan Wolpe, and Dilemmas of Cosmopolitanism,” recently published in The Musical Quarterly.
Yoko Ono befriended Stefan Wolpe and his wife the poet Hilda Morley in New York City around 1957. Although of different backgrounds and generations, Wolpe and Ono were both displaced people in a city of immigrants. Both had been wartime refugees, and both endured forms of national exile, though in different ways. Ono had survived starvation conditions as an internal refugee after the Tokyo firebombings. She was twelve when her family fled the city to the countryside outside Nagano, while her father was stranded in a POW camp. By then, she had already felt a sense of cultural apartness, since she had spent much of her early childhood shuttling back and forth between Japan and California, following her father’s banking career. When she began her own career as an artist in New York in the 1950s, Ono entered what art historian Midori Yoshimoto has called a gender-based exile from Japan. Her career and lifestyle clashed with a society where there were “few alternatives to the traditional women’s role of becoming ryōsai kenbo (good wives and wise mothers).” Though Ono eventually became known primarily as a performance and visual artist, she identified first as a composer and poet. After she moved to the city to pursue a career in the arts, Ono’s family disowned her. It was around this time that she befriended the Wolpe-Morleys, who often hosted her at their Upper West Side apartment, where she “loved the intellectual, warm, and definitely European atmosphere the two of them had created.”
In 2008, I wrote a letter to Ono, asking her about the poems in Wolpe’s collection. Given her busy schedule, I was surprised to receive a reply within a week. She confirmed that she had given the poems to Wolpe and Morley in the 1950s. She also shared other poems and prose from her early adulthood, alongside a written reminiscence of Wolpe and Morley. She later posted this reminiscence on her blog several months before her 2010 exhibit “Das Gift,” an installation in Wolpe’s hometown Berlin dedicated to addressing histories of violence. The themes of the installation trace back to the earliest phase of her career when she knew Wolpe. During their period of friendship, both creators devoted their artistic projects to questions of violent history and traumatic memory, refashioning them as a basis for rehabilitative thought, action, and community.
Virtually no historical literature acknowledges Ono’s and Wolpe’s connection, which was premised on shared experiences of displacement, exile, and state violence. Their affiliation remains virtually unintelligible to standard art and music histories of modernism and the avant-garde, which tend to segregate their narratives along stable lines of genre, medium, and nation—by categories like “French symbolist poetry,” “Austro-German Second Viennese School composition,” and “American experimental jazz.” From this narrow perspective, Wolpe the German-Jewish, high modernist composer would have little to do with Ono the expatriate Japanese performance artist.
What do we lose by ignoring such creative bonds forged in diaspora? Wolpe and Ono both knew what it was to be treated as less than human. They had both felt the hammer of military state violence. They both knew what it was to not “fit” in the nation—to be neither fully American, Japanese, nor German. And they both directed their artistic work toward the dilemmas arising from these difficult experiences. The record levels of forced displacement during their lifetimes have not ended, but have only risen in our own. According to the most recent report from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, “more people were forced to flee their homes in 2013 than ever before in modern history.” Though the arts cannot provide refuge, they can do healing work by virtue of the communities they sustain, with the call-and-response of human recognition exemplified in boundary-crossing friendships like Wolpe’s and Ono’s. And to recognize such histories of connection is to recognize figures of history as fully human.
Headline image credit: Cards and poems made for Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree and sent to Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington), 7 November 2010. Photo by Gianpiero Actis & Lidia Chiarelli. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Listing the ten best shows for a music director to work on is as subjective as choosing the ten greatest composers, or painters, or novelists, so it’s worthwhile to stipulate some qualities the winners must have, subjectively speaking. Yet these qualities can only reveal themselves by working through the reasoning of what makes a show a music director’s favorite.
Of the many musicals I’ve attended in recent years, among the most enjoyable and perhaps the funniest was Monty Python’s Spamalot. The music cues come fast and furious, and in all varieties, from classical quodlibets to Spike Jones-like punctuations–a true challenge for the music director to keep up and maintain the comic timing. Yet despite such diversity of style, despite the expertise of the orchestrations, regardless of the virtuosity of the players in the pit, the music is so fully integrated into the fabric of the comedy that it almost ceases to have a discrete identity of its own. It acts more as laugh-enhancer to the goings-on onstage.
Are the shows that music directors are partial to leading from the podium perhaps not the best ones to view from the house as an audience member or critic? Most music directors, it seems, prefer directing musical material with its own distinction.
That’s why many readers are probably expecting the top of this list to be occupied by the musical jewels that always seem to outshine the rest, and are likely the offhanded choices of just about any music-director-on-the-street you might ask: West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, Cabaret, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Fiddler… And isn’t it interesting that as the list continues, that the best scores seem to coincide with the best stories; they are inseparably connected to the best musical theater works, the best overall entertainments. A great book marks the finest examples of the form, and great scores masterfully accompany these great stories or themes, just as Spamalot’s does. There have been many excellent, crafty scores alongside librettos that have not sufficiently engaged their audiences–and those shows have rarely succeeded–but seldom has there been a great musical without an outstanding score.
For a music director, it’s about the sparks that fly when music and drama collide and collaborate; that’s what makes the job exciting. Therefore, I will, after all, include Spamalot among my top ten, for the same reasons I cited above to argue against it. It seems impossible that the music director-conductor of that show could ever get bored in performance, what with the variety of musical involvement, and the charming music is very much a part of the outrageous humor.
And yes, the great scores (some, but not all of them–I’ll tell you why in a moment) belong on the list, if for no other reason than the pure musical satisfaction they provide music directors. West Side Story is there because, well, because the score is not only unthinkably beautiful and profoundly interesting, but is also a seminar on music theory and composition. Sweeney Todd, too, because nothing can touch that unique sound, that combination of dark and light, the stuff that waves of goosebumps are made of. Both of these scores are also musically challenging for all involved: singers, musicians, and music directors. On the other hand, though you may adore a lush, sophisticated work such as The Most Happy Fella or The Bridges of Madison County, you might be prone to disconnecting from the emotional content, which are diluted by threadbare (albeit emotional) story lines. Instead, I’ll include something comparably original and musically intelligent, Carousel, which though certainly corny by today’s standards, is still a marvel of lyricism, and of connection of music to story. I’m sure many readers would want to add their own favorites in its slot.
Music directors covet music with “groove,” especially since groove began to dominate popular music in the mid-20th century. Nothing is more satisfying than rocking out with a great band in front of an audience that is really into the proceedings. Perhaps the deepest grooves in musical theater history have belonged to a handful of authentically rock/pop shows–among them Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rocky Horror, Mamma Mia!, Tommy, Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar, Spring Awakening, In The Heights, and now Hamilton. I’ll disqualify Tommy and Heights due to my bias as an alumnus of their Broadway productions. Hedwig is a whole different animal, with its onstage band and few songs; Mamma Mia! has a silly story; and Spring Awakening’s music direction is subtle and overshadowed by its remarkable staging and storytelling, so let’s just narrow the list down to Rent and Superstar. I give the nod to Jesus Christ Superstar because its music calls upon all the influences of its time–rock, R&B, blues, psychedelia, etc.–while retaining a true classical heart and a tenacious theatrical bent. It’s nearly through-composed, and the conductor plays keyboards, keeping him or her busily occupied throughout. Almost all of this is true of Rent too, so let’s keep them both on the list.
As for onstage bands: Ain’t Misbehavin’ or Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Both are a just a gas to lead, the music director gets to show off at the piano a bit, and the spirit and music of the shows tend to evince stellar performances from their singers and players, as well as rowdy approval from audiences. Take your pick; it’s a tossup.
Let’s add shows that get better the more you view them. The Music Man, for example, has brilliant construction, sharp characterizations, and a glorious score, featuring intricate melodic connections and spectacular dance arrangements. And because they so epitomize the musical theater form, it’s almost impossible to exclude A Chorus Line or Chicago. I’m choosing A Chorus Line on the list because of its scant 100 minute duration (no intermission), which for working stiffs, gets many music directors home at a quite reasonable hour. (I was also tempted to include Little Shop of Horrors for this reason, and because it is a brilliantly crafted musical with a great, grooving score, but again, as an alum of the original production, I am biased.)
Any show that you yourself help to arrange or create as music director, any show that you truly care for, is probably your darling. It could be the show you arranged for your local theater club, or a revue you did with your favorite singer. Shows that you work hard on get under your skin, into your soul, and never leave you. Nine years after departing Broadway’s The Lion King, I still have Lion King ear worms.
Any of the shows I list might be compromised by an irresponsibly reduced orchestration, or an unjustifiable or unattractive synthetic musical element. I am considering them are their ideal, pristine, original or very-close-to-it versions. So here they are, in an order that I will change countless times after posting this blog article:
7. A Chorus Line
6. The Music Man
5. Tie: Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Cafe
4. Jesus Christ Superstar
3. Sweeney Todd
2. West Side Story
1. Your own personal Lion King, whatever it may be–the show that is closest to your heart.
Headline Image: Music Notes. CC0 Public Domain License via Pixabay
The Harp is a string instrument of very ancient lineage that is synonymous with classical music and cupid’s lyre. Over the years, the harp has morphed from its primitive hunting bow shape to its modern day use in corporate branding. Across the globe, each culture has its own variation of this whimsical soft-sounding instrument. Check out these ten fun facts about the harp.
1. The harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. It dates back to around 3000 B.C. and was first depicted on the sides of ancient Egyptian tombs and in Mesopotamian culture.
2. Nowhere is there a larger variety of harps than in Africa. The harp has a place in the traditions of nearly 150 African peoples.
3. The word harpa was first used around the year 600 and is a generic term for stringed instruments. The verb harp means to talk on and on about one subject similar to a harpist plucking the same string over and over.
4. With a range of one to 90 strings per instrument, the harp can be classified into two main categories: the frame harp and the open harp.
5. A modern harpist plays using only the first four fingers on each hand. They pluck the strings near the middle of the harp using the pads of their fingers. Irish harpists use their fingernails to pluck the wire strings.
6. The rapid succession of musical notes played on a harp is called arpeggio and the sweeping motion of the hands across the strings is termed glissando.
7. Once an aristocratic instrument played for royalty, harpists were challenged with being able to evoke three distinct emotions from their audience: tears, laughter, and sleep.
How do you approach the history of love? Is it through psychology and the understanding of emotion? Is it through the great works of literature? Or is it through sound — from the chord that pulls the heart strings to the lyric that melts your heart?
But this music has a strange history of its own. We can trace our ‘saccharine’ comments to Ancient Rome and the language of servitude to the Convivencia. Discover the fascinating patterns in the history of love songs in the following timeline, based on the key findings and milestones from Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History.
Headline image credit: Music by Gustav Klimt. Public domain via WikiArt.
A recent study of commercial recordings finds that 90% are attributed to men—and most often men in their peak years of sexual activity. Perhaps this discrepancy is the result of bias in the music industry or among audiences, or maybe a little of both. Or perhaps we can conclude that Darwin was right about music. He believed that songs originated as a tool for courtship, not much different from the vocalizing of male birds during mating season. From this perspective, all songs are love songs, and men take the lead in this process as part of their biological mandate.
Yet close study of the cultural evolution of romantic music reveals that women contributed most of the key innovations in the love song. Even when men took most of the credit—which often happened—they frequently constructed their songs by imitating the earlier works of female singers. To some extent, the history of the love song can be described as the process of men learning to sing as if they were women.
In many times and places, this gender shift has led to criticism, and sometimes prohibition. Quintilian, complaining about the music of the early Roman Imperial era, griped that songs had been “emasculated by the lascivious melodies of our effeminate stage.” These have “no doubt destroyed such manly vigor as we still possess.” Did effeminate love songs lead perhaps to the fall of Rome? I doubt it, but many leaders of antiquity bemoaned these melodies. Seneca the Elder warned that “the revolting pursuits of singing and dancing have these effeminates in their power; braiding their hair and thinning their voices to a feminine lilt….This is the model our young men have!”
A similar backlash can be traced, even earlier, to ancient Greece. Here the lyric tradition created by a famous woman, Sappho, was inherited by men. They took bold steps to make the lyric a more manly and sober affair. Pindar, lauded by Quintilian as the greatest of the lyric poets, used his art to sing the praises of worthy men. But even here, the gender shift was inescapable—the lyric was, in its essence, all too clearly marked by Sappho’s legacy. Pindar was forced to admit, in a revealing confession: “I must think maidenly thoughts. And utter them with my tongue.”
This aspect of the lyric helps us understand other apparent anomalies. A papyrus discovered in an Egyptian tomb in 1855 contains previously unknown verses of a partheneion, or maiden song, from the earliest days of Greek lyric. But—strange to say—the composer of the song is a man, the poet Alcman. He is the earliest of the great male lyric poets of ancient Greece, but his surviving work is clearly composed for young women to sing. Like Pindar, Alcman served as spokesman for maidenly thoughts.
Half a world away, Confucius is credited as the esteemed authority who gathered the most famous ancient Chinese love songs into the collection known as the Shijing or Book of Songs. Many of the songs in this collection adopt a female narrative voice. How odd that Confucius, operating at almost the same time as Pindar, would also be linked with “maidenly thoughts.” Later Confucian scholars exerted a great deal of effort toward explaining away this apparent paradox. They hoped to prove that these songs weren’t really about women’s romantic yearnings—and some still aim to prove this. But few modern readers will be convinced by these attempts to remove the romance from these heartfelt love lyrics.
Yet the most famous attempt to do just this comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Biblical Song of Songs, the most famous love lyric in history, is attributed to King Solomon, but many of the sentiments expressed in the scriptural text are clearly from a female perspective. Scholars still argue over explanations for this anomaly. How did all this eroticism get into the Bible? But they rarely note (and are probably unaware of) how frequently famous men in other cultures also take credit for the love songs of women. Perhaps from a theological perspective, this state of affairs appears peculiar, but viewed in the context of the history of the love song, it is a familiar pattern, repeated again and again over the centuries.
In almost every instance, the names of the female innovators have not survived. They are the first undocumented workers in music history. Yet their contributions can still be traced and, more to the point, heard even today in the love songs that we use in courtship and seduction, or merely personal fantasy and idle entertainment.
The story of the female innovators behind the troubadours of southern France may be the most fascinating chapter in this mostly unwritten history. Scholars remember the names of the famous troubadours who are given credit for inventing key elements of the Western love song, but neglect to tell us of their predecessors, the elite female singing slaves of the Muslim world. These women, known as qayna, anticipated almost every key element in the ethos of courtly love long before the troubadours arrived on the scene. Indeed, the most distinctive element of troubadour song—namely, the singer’s posture of servitude and bondage to the beloved—was adopted by these women because they were in a state of actual servitude.
Many other medieval love lyrics have puzzled scholars, who have tried to explain why men are adopting a woman’s perspective. We find this with the chansons de toile, the spinning songs of the French trouvères. We encounter this with the Old English love lyrics from the Exeter Manuscript, “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer.” And we find this in the Islamic world as well, where a host of effeminate singers, the so-called mukhannathun, enjoyed enormous popularity.
The surviving documents are filled with many puzzles, but they make clear that audiences responded enthusiastically to men who performed music as if they were women. One commentator ranked the eighth century performer Ibn Surayj as the best of the female singers. But he was clearly a man. The context makes it impossible to know whether this critic is making a joke, offering a musical judgment on Ibn Surayj’s performances, or merely referring to the singer’s way of life. In a similar vein, the celebrated master of Abbasid love lyrics Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf, another man who composed ghazals performed in the caliph’s court, is described as “delicate, attractive, tender and full of ideas”—and here the qualities emphasized are clearly personal ones. We are left with an almost inescapable conclusion, that both performers and audiences saw a link between feminine qualities and skill as a purveyor of musical entertainment, especially love songs.
How did patrons and audiences react to this “effeminate” manner of singing? The story is told of a noble singer of the old style who was chastised by his son for changing his approach in his old age, and adopting the popular vocal style of the mukhannathun. He replied: “Be quiet, ignorant boy!” and pointed out that he had lived in poverty for sixty years singing in the old style, but now had “made more money than you’d ever seen before” by adapting to the new manner of performing.
This aspect of the love song continues in the current day. The gender complexities of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ziggy Stardust may have seemed radical to 20th century audiences, but the epicene stars of modern times were simply repeating a formula as old as the love song itself. Perhaps most of the recording royalties generated by our favorite love songs have gone to men, but at every step in the evolution of this music, the influence of women—whose names are rarely preserved—provided the foundation for their successes. It is high time that we revised our historical accounts of this music to acknowledge their contributions.
Headline image credit: Sappho. Portrait by Gustave Moreau. Public domain via WikiArt.
With the catchy melodies of Richard Rodgers’ music, and the cheeky wit of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, the early collaborative songs of Rodgers-and-Hart are characteristic of 1920s jazz at its finest — and some of the best examples of early classics from the Great American Songbook. Most of the shows from this period have sunk into obscurity, but the songs have stood the test of time. You won’t be able to resist tapping your feet along to these ten great hits!
“Any Old Place with You”
This was the first Rodgers and Hart song to feature in a Broadway show. It was snapped up by Lew Fields (formerly of the celebrated Weber and Fields vaudeville act) for his 1919 show A Lonely Romeo. At the time, the boys thought they had made the big time, but it would be another six years before they really struck success. Lew Fields would go on to be one of their most committed supporters, producing several of their 1920s shows; his son Herbert also became their most significant lyricist throughout the 1920s.
“Manhattan” was the first real hit the boys would have, though its first incarnation was in the unperformed show Winkle Town (1923), written by Rodgers and Hart with a script by Herbert Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II. The boys played the score of Winkle Town to producer Max Dreyfus. “There’s nothing of value here,” was his response. The rest is history. It’s interesting to listen to this song and “Any Old Place With You” together though—they’re similar songs, but you can hear a transition from the old style of “Any Old Place” to the jazz-age informality of “Manhattan.” This is Ella Fizgerald singing the song, one of the superlative interpreters of Rodgers and Harts’ songbook.
The success of one Garrick Gaieties almost inevitably spawned a second. Many of the same team reunited, and although the result was not as striking as their previous effort, The Garrick Gaieties of 1926 was still a success. In “Mountain Greenery” the boys penned a riposte to the urban delight of “Manhattan”. Here the cosy couple imagine a country retreat in a song that really showcases the trademark Rodgers and Hart style of the period: catchy music and witty lyrics with a wealth of outrageous rhymes.
“Here in My Arms”
Phyllis Dare / Jack Hulbert
Finally, the boys got to write their own full-length show, an American Revolutionary tale recounting the British invasion of Manhattan. In Dearest Enemy (1925), an American girl falls in love with a British Officer before thwarting the invasion under his nose. Their main love song, reprised throughout the show, was “Here In My Arms”. Only a year later, the boys would be summoned to London’s West End to produce a show for British audiences. “Here in My Arms” received its second outing in Lido Lady (1926), though British reviewers were not as favourable as the New York press. Here is the original recording from the 1926 production of Lido Lady, featuring Phyllis Dare and Jack Hulbert.
“The Girlfriend / The Blue Room”
1926 marked the most successful year yet for Rodgers and Hart, now firmly part of the Lew Fields stable and churning out hit after hit. The Girlfriend was one of their biggest successes, featuring a number of songs that would become representative of their 1920s style, featuring prominently the new jazz sound of the Charleston. The title number from the show later served as inspiration for the 1950s British pastiche, The Boyfriend. Here, Richard Rodgers himself offers his take on both “The Girlfriend” and “The Blue Room,” capturing poignantly the infectious sound that epitomizes the character of the 1920s.
“This Funny World”
One of Rodgers and Hart’s least auspicious shows was the Florenz Ziegfeld-produced Betsy (1926). This was written at a time when the boys were at their height, and very busy—indeed another of their shows, Peggy-Ann, opened on Broadway the previous evening. Perhaps they were simply too busy to do both shows justice. The intended hit song, written for star Belle Baker, was “This Funny World,” a charming, rueful ballad. To their horror, Ziegfeld decided it wasn’t good enough, and without even consulting the boys, he replaced this with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” which was a tremendous success. Not for the first time Rodgers and Hart would have their noses put out by this snub, following which Rodgers did not speak to Berlin for ten years. Here’s Susannah McCorkle in a quintessentially 1970s recording of the song.
“My Heart Stood Still”
Despite a troubled experience on their first trip to England, Rodgers and Hart were soon enticed back by producer C.B. Cochran to write another revue. One Dam Thing After Another (1927) allowed them to explore a number of ideas that would feature in subsequent shows, and one song in particular (“My Heart Stood Still”) travelled back across the Atlantic to become just one of several hits in A Connecticut Yankee (1927). This recording features Rod Stewart, offering a recent version from his Great American Songbook period.
“To Keep My Love Alive”
Above all, the Rodgers and Hart songbook is full of wit and irreverence. Here is one of their classic comedy numbers, “To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee (1927), their biggest hit of the 1920s, in which Queen Morgan Le Fay sings of the various ways she has dispatched her lovers. It’s sung by Anita O’Day, who captures the casual attitude of the character whilst creating a great swing version of the song.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
One of Rodgers and Hart’s most celebrated hits, this song has been covered numerous times. It really captures the whole conceit of A Connecticut Yankee (1927)—the juxtaposition of dialogue from the time of King Arthur and the modern day, encapsulated in the title alone. Here, Rodgers is at his jazzy best and Hart is preposterous in the way he rhymes nonsense words, archaic phrases, and contemporary slang—classic 1920s musical comedy! Here’s Sammy Davis, Jr. milking the verse only to give the refrain his characteristically virtuosic rendition.
“You Took Advantage of Me”
By the late 1920s, Rodgers and Hart’s 1920s success was beginning to wane. They would reappear in the 1930s to even greater success, but the turn of the decade marked a period of reflection and a flirtation with Hollywood. From this period, the shows they produced produced far fewer song hits. But here is one, from Present Arms (1928), which has become a household standard. Here, Bobby Short gives some class and pizzazz to “You Took Advantage of Me”.
The full playlist:
Headline Image: New York City. CC0 License via Pixabay
Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1839 – 1910), one of the first great vocal pedagogues, is quoted as saying in his Maxims that the breath is the basis of good singing.
”What is your approach to breath?” is a simple question, but the answers to this question are anything but simple. Master singers have varying ideas about breath control.
Breathing may be natural or unnatural, free or controlled, depending on the singer. Lawrence Brownlee speaks of “naturalness” and Nicole Cabell warns against it because “what seems natural could be incorrect.” Joyce DiDonato speaks of “freedom” of breath and Stephanie Blythe of “release”. Thomas Hampson advocates a conscious control of the breath.
Moreover, there are also various vocalizing techniques to command the flow of breath. Denyce Graves suggests using a hiss to control the breath flow. Another idea is the use of sirens, which helps to give a seamless sound throughout the range. An interesting suggestion from Eric Owens is to think of the inhalation as a note, an unwritten note, but a note. When the singer thinks of the inhalation as a note in the phrase, it becomes more natural and legato.
Indeed, singers may find lessons from many other areas of music. Although we are admonished that there is a difference in the more rigid support needed for the instrumentalist as opposed to the vocalist, Christine Goerke and Gerhard Siegel were thankful for their instrumental training because it helped them with their breath support. They reiterated that the singer needs flexibility in breathing or, as many say, a feeling of release, which is different from the instrumental breath support.
One recurring idea for breathing is that the breath is felt low in the body. According to Ana María Martínez, there “…is nothing high about the breath,” the breath fills the lower back with air while keeping the “…diaphragm low.” Joyce DiDnato says that one lets the air “drop like a weight”. With a certain amount of humor some suggest that the breathing is down and low, in the “bikinis,” or the belly gets “fluffy.”
But the true lesson from these masters is that each approach must be unique as each potential singer’s voice is unique. As Lamperti reminds us: “as a swimmer doesn’t fight the water, so should a singer not fight the breath.”
Yearning, yearning for the past It's like we're always burning Through the hourglass (Like we always do, like we always do) Learning, learning as we go It's like we're always searching For the seeds we've sown
Stuck in the rhythm, same every day Looking at pictures I know I should put away Building towers to break 'em back down We're framing the moment Ties that keep us bound
Days and nights And the best of times We keep our memories like souvenirs When we were kids, Did you think that it would all come back to this? Looking back Oh, looking back And you know, and they know, That we just don't wanna be forgotten
This Christmas, London’s Royal Opera House played host to Christopher Wheeldon’s critically acclaimed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, performed by the Royal Ballet and with a score by Joby Talbot. Indeed, Lewis Carroll’s seminal work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long inspired classical compositions, in forms as diverse as ballet, opera, chamber music, song, as well as, of course, film scores. Examples include English composer Liza Lehmann’s Nonsense songs (1908); American composer Irving Fine’s two sets of Choruses from Alice in Wonderland (1949 and 1953); and contemporary composer Wendy Hiscock’s ‘Jill in the box’, commissioned by the BFI to accompany the first footage of Alice in Wonderland – a 1903 silent film directed by Percy Stow and Cecil Hepworth.
In the Oxford catalogue, the influence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be seen in choral pieces by Maurice Bailey, Bob Chilcott, and Sarah Quartel, and it is interesting to observe the similarities in their treatment of this famous text. Maurice Bailey selects seven poems from the book to produce a set of seven songs for upper voices and piano or instrumental ensemble. The set begins with a short narration—a direct quotation of the book’s first four paragraphs—and the first song takes up the image of Alice sitting by the riverbank, setting the scene with the performance direction ‘like a warm and lazy summer afternoon’. Each song has a distinct character:
‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!’ is jovial, with a gentle swing feel;
‘You are old, Father William’ is solemn and dramatic;
‘How doth the little crocodile’ is a peaceful, chorale-like setting;
‘Will you walk a little faster?’ has a deliberate feel, featuring call-and-response imitation;
‘Beautiful Soup’ is in the manner of a leisurely waltz; and
‘They told me you had been to her’ is mysterious and energetic, with evocative musical language.
In all the songs, the piano or instrumental ensemble is a key component in the drama, rather than being simply a supportive accompanying force. There is also some scat singing, recitation, and spoken text. ‘You are old, Father William’ in particular exploits recitation to great dramatic effect, requiring a member of the choir to take on the part of Father William, which is entirely spoken, while the rest of the choir adopt the role of narrator, with sung interjections that complete the story.
Chilcott’s Mouse Tales, for SA and piano, is in two movements: the second setting the familiar poem ‘The Mouse’s Tale’ from the published version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and the first setting the poem that Carroll included in its place in his original manuscript. Both movements have an abundance of character, and Chilcott marks the first movement ‘sassy’, a term that perfectly describes the musical style and that encourages the singers to give a characterful performance. The first movement has a jazz flavour, while the energetic second movement features driving ostinatos in the piano and accents in the vocal lines that place emphasis on unexpected beats of the bar, keeping the singers on their toes. Like Bailey, Chilcott employs scat singing and spoken interjections such as ‘you did?’ and ‘nice!’ for dramatic effect, as well as a catchy refrain to present the well-known proverb ‘when the cat’s away, then the mice will play’.
Unlike the other two composers, Sarah Quartel uses Carroll’s story as the basis for her own text, in which we encounter characters such as the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Hatter. The piece, for SSA and piano, has great potential for dramatic performance, with sections of a cappella scat singing and spoken text and a catchy refrain that centres around the Cheshire Cat’s declaration that ‘we’re all mad here’, where the part-writing encourages playful interaction between the different sections of the choir. The choir adopts the role of Alice, and Quartel helps the singers to convey Alice’s responses to the narrative through performance directions such as ‘with distinct character, telling a story’, ‘playful, like a caucus-race’, ‘indignant!’, and ‘with awe!’. Naturally, the music itself contributes to the characterization. For example, a march-like figure is employed to represent the Queen, while the music for the flustered White Rabbit features rapidly ascending and descending scales in the piano. Indeed, once again, the piano is a key component in the portrayal of the drama, and the rapid movement through different keys also helps to convey Alice’s mixture of confusion and wonder at the strange world she inhabits.
As we have seen, there are certain similarities in the three composers’ responses to this influential work of children’s literature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the composers elected to write for upper voices, so that their settings might be performed by children’s choir. Imaginative and descriptive performance directions play an important part, assisting the singers in their characterization of the unusual protagonists in the story that they are telling. Again, unsurprisingly, the book appears to inspire a certain theatricality in the writing and music; it requires the performers to give a dramatic performance that has a strong sense of fun. Spoken text and scat singing are also prevalent in all three works, and the piano makes an integral contribution to the musical characterization. With its adventurous heroine, extraordinary characters, and unapologetic celebration of the quirky and the ‘mad’, it is little wonder that the text has proven a source of inspiration for composers since its inception and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Headline image credit: Иллюстрация к главе Бег по кругу книги Алиса в стране чудес. Image by Gertrude Kay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Throughout the month, we’ve been examining the myriad aspects of the human voice. But who better to discuss it than a singer herself? We asked Jenny Forsyth, member of the Sospiri choir in Oxford, what it takes to be part of a successful choir.
Which vocal part do you sing in the choir?
I sing soprano – usually first soprano if the parts split, but I’ll sing second if I need to.
For how long have you been singing?
I started singing in the training choir of the Farnham Youth Choir, in Surrey, when I was seven. Then I moved up through the junior choir when I was about 10 years old and then auditioned and moved up to the main performance choir at the age of 12 and stayed with them until I was 18. After this I studied for a Bachelors in Music, then did a Masters degree in Choral Studies (Conducting).
What first made you want to join a choir?
I had recently started having piano lessons and my dad, a musician himself, thought it would be good for my musical education to join a choir. We went to a concert given by the Farnham Youth Choir and after that I was hooked!
What is your favourite piece or song to perform?
That’s a really difficult question – there is so much great music around! I enjoy singing Renaissance music so I might choose Taverner’s Dum Transsiset. I also love Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine and Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.
I also sing with an ensemble called the Lacock Scholars, and we sing a lot of plainsong chant, a lot of which is just so beautiful. Reading from historical notation – neumes – can give you so much musical information through such simple notation; it’s really exciting!
I’ve recently recorded an album of new commissions for the centenary of World War I with a choir from Oxford called Sospiri, directed by Chris Watson. The disk is called A Multitude of Voices and all the commissions are settings of war poems and texts. The composers were asked to look outside the poetical canon and consider texts by women, neglected poets and writers in languages other than English. I love all the music on the disk and it’s a thrilling feeling to be the first choir ever to sing a work. I really love Standing as I do before God by Cecilia McDowall and Three Songs of Remembrance by David Bednall. Two completely different works but both incredibly moving to perform.
However I think my all-time favourite has to be Las Amarillas by Stephen Hatfield – an arrangement of Mexican playground songs. It’s in Spanish and has some complicated cross rhythms, clapping, and other body percussion. It’s a hard piece to learn but when it comes together it just clicks into place and is one of the most rewarding pieces of music!
How do you keep your voice in peak condition?
These are the five things I find really help me. (Though a busy schedule means the early nights are often a little elusive!)
Keeping hydrated. It is vital to drink enough water to keep your whole system hydrated (ie., the internal hydration of the entire body that keeps the skin, eyes, and all other mucosal tissue healthy), and to make sure the vocal chords themselves are hydrated. When you drink water the water doesn’t actually touch the vocal chords so I find the best way to keep them hydrated is to steam, either over a bowl of hot water or with a purpose-built steam inhaler. The topical, or surface, hydration is the moisture level that keeps the epithelial surface of the vocal folds slippery enough to vibrate. Steaming is incredibly good for a tired voice!
I’m not sure what the science behind this is but I find eating an apple just before I sing makes my voice feel more flexible and resonant.
Hot drinks. A warm tea or coffee helps to relax my voice when it’s feeling a bit tired.
Regular singing lessons. Having regular singing lessons with a teacher who is up to date on research into singing techniques is crucial to keeping your voice in peak condition. Often you won’t notice the development of bad habits, which could potentially be damaging to your voice, but your singing teacher will be able to correct you and keep you in check.
Keeping physically fit and getting early nights. Singing is a really physical activity. When you’ve been working hard in a rehearsal or lesson you can end up feeling physically exhausted. Even though singers usually make singing look easy, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes with lots of different sets of muscles working incredibly hard to support their sound. It’s essential to keep your body fit and well-rested to allow you to create the music you want to without damaging your voice.
Do you play any other musical instruments?
When I was younger I played the piano, flute and violin but I had to give up piano and flute as I didn’t have enough time to do enough practice to make my lessons worthwhile. I continued playing violin and took up viola in my gap year and then at university studied violin as my first study instrument for my first two years before swapping to voice in my final year.
Do you have a favourite place to perform?
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world with the Farnham Youth Choir, with tours around Europe and trips to both China and Australia. So, even before I decided to take my singing more seriously, I had had the chance to sing in some of the best venues in the world. It’s hard to choose a favourite as some venues lend themselves better to certain types of repertoire. Anywhere with a nice acoustic where you can hear both what you are singing and what others around you are singing is lovely. It can be very disconcerting to feel as though you’re singing completely by yourself when you know you’re in a choir of 20! I’m currently doing a lot of singing with the Lacock Scholars at Saint Cuthbert’s Church, Earl’s Court, so I think that’s my favourite at the moment. Having said that, I would absolutely love to sing at the building where I work as a music administrator – Westminster Cathedral! It’s got the most glorious acoustics and is absolutely stunning.
What is the most rewarding thing about being in a choir?
There are so many great things about singing in a choir. You get a sense of working as part of a team, which you rarely get to the same extent outside of choral singing. I think this is because your voice is so personal to you can find yourself feeling quite vulnerable. I sometimes think that to sing well you have to take that vulnerability and use it; to really put yourself ‘out there’ to give the music a sense of vitality. You have to really trust your fellow singers. You have to know that when you come in on a loud entry (or a quiet one, for that matter!) that you won’t be left high and dry singing on your own.
What’s the most challenging thing about singing in a choir?
I think this is similar to the things that are rewarding about being part of a choir. That sense of vulnerability can be unnerving and can sow seeds of doubt in your mind. “Do I sound ok? Is the audience enjoying the performance? Was that what the conductor wanted?” But you have to put some of these thoughts out of your mind and focus on the job in hand. If you’ve been rehearsing the repertoire for a long time you can sometimes find your mind wandering, and then you’re singing on autopilot. So it can be a challenge to keep trying to find new and interesting things in the music itself.
Also, personality differences between members of the choir or singers and conductors can cause friction. It’s important to strike the right balance so that everyone’s time is used effectively. The dynamic between a conductor and their choir is important in creating a finely tuned machine, and it is different with each conductor and each choir. Sometimes in a small ensemble a “Choirocracy” can work with the singers being able to give opinions but it can make rehearsals tedious and in a choral society of over a hundred singers it would be a nightmare.
Do you have any advice for someone thinking about joining a choir?
Do it! I think singing in a choir as I grew up really helped my confidence; I used to be very shy but the responsibility my youth choir gave me really brought me out of myself. You get a great feeling of achievement when singing in a choir. I don’t think that changes whether you’re an amateur singing for fun or in a church choir once a week or whether you’re a professional doing it to make a living. I’ve recently spent time working with an “Office Choir”. All of the members work in the same building for large banking corporation, and they meet up once a week for a rehearsal and perform a couple of concerts a year. It’s great because people who wouldn’t usually talk to each other are engaging over a common interest. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO, secretary, manager, or an intern; you’re all in the same boat when learning a new piece of music! They all say the same thing: they look forward to Wednesdays now because of their lunchtime rehearsals, and they find themselves feeling a lot more invigorated when they return to their desks afterwards.
Lastly, singing in a choir is a great way to make new friends. Some of my closest friends are people I met at choir aged 7!
Header image credit: St John’s College Chapel by Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
Here's another sketching opportunity that came my way recently, I got to go into a studio to sketch band. A local band, including a couple of members I know. I realised that I've never actually been into a studio before. I could have spent hours, days, in there drawing all the equipment.
I have some larger drawings that I made in my Moleskine sketchbook, but these drawings I made in a cheap little pretend Moleskine that was about a quarter of the price. I'm not somebody who moans about the Moleskine sketchbooks being expensive. I actually don't think they are. Or, at least, for me it's well worth the price for the amount of time, effort and love I put into filling them. But, there is something to be said for these cheaper sketchbooks. You're less precious about them and about wasting the paper which gives you the freedom to make different kind of drawings. More sketchy.
Anyway, here are some sketchy sketches. And, here, if you are interested are the band, Sharma. If nothing else just check out this first track. I think they're good. Really good. You can watch them HERE.
For ballet rehearsals in theatres around the world the piano has long been the musical instrument of choice. To engage orchestras to do the detailed, volatile work required in routine rehearsals would be impractical and prohibitively costly, and only at the dress rehearsal will dancers and the orchestra finally come together. The music at all earlier rehearsals is provided through a specially written version of the score called a ‘piano reduction’, containing all the music’s essentials, but ‘reduced’ for one player – a practical, pragmatic realization of the composer’s vision with which dancers and production team can work. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (or his publisher) delegated the creation of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker reductions to others, while the piano versions of Claude Debussy’s commissioned ballet scores Jeux and Khamma were made by the composer himself. Whether created by the composer or another musician, the reduction is an essential component in any ballet production.
The piano reduction can itself play a critical role in the balletic creative process. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s orchestral score Job: a masque for dancing (intended for a danced masque founded on William Blake’s illustrations for the biblical book of Job) was first performed as a concert work in 1930. The staged premiere took place in July 1931, when Constant Lambert conducted the Carmargo Society’s production at London’s Cambridge Theatre; the choreography was by Ninette de Valois and designs by Gwendolen Raverat. Lambert had also adapted the orchestration to suit the theatre’s small orchestra pit. Vaughan Williams, too busy himself, asked Gustav Holst’s amanuensis Vally Lasker to create a piano score (‘something simple and practical’) for the rehearsals. Quickly completed, several copies were then made for the production staff: ‘Copy No. 2’ was produced in May 1931 and survives in Oxford University Press’s archive. It was neatly calligraphed in black ink (stage directions in red) but soon overlaid with numerous pencilled comments and amendments, each reflecting a rehearsal event, a last-minute change, or a refinement to the stage action or choreography. Bars are added where the stage required more music, or deleted when there was too much; re-voicing and corrections to the music are slipped in; stage instructions are changed or elaborated. A long-vanished but truly creative dialogue between composer, choreographer, and producer is silently re-enacted within this simple, handwritten score.
After the production, ‘Copy No. 2’ became the basis for the published edition of the reduction brought out by OUP later in 1931. This proudly proclaimed ‘Pianoforte arrangement by Vally Lasker’ on the cover, and it was to be several years before OUP issued the composer’s full orchestral score, with the rehearsal changes duly incorporated. The music of Job thereby reached its definitive form through the vehicle of Lasker’s piano reduction.
An unexpected parallel life emerges. The piano reduction, being a complete and accurate ‘black and white photograph’ of an orchestral score, has its own existence, robust and independent, away from the floor-markings, bar, and rigour of the dance studio. The piano score of Estancia, Alberto Ginastera’s 1941 ballet of the South American pampas, was the source for the separately-issued ‘Pequena Danza’ for piano solo, while Debussy’s posthumously produced children’s ballet La boîte à Joujoux indeed began its life in piano form in 1913 (it was only later orchestrated). Edition Durand’s published edition of the piano score contains André Hellé’s delightful children’s storybook-style coloured illustrations, already envisaging perhaps a life for the music beyond the rehearsal room. The Job printed edition, too, was lavish, with one of the Blake illustrations shown as a frontispiece.
Pianists, perhaps belatedly, are realizing that here lies a hidden, new seam of repertoire, just for them: fine music in expertly crafted arrangements, with a potential life in the concert hall. Here is music to be appreciated on its own merits, highlighting not only the skill of a composer, but of the arranger too, shining new and often revealing light on the structure and textures of the ballet score itself. Jean-Pierre Armengaud, for example, has recorded for Naxos the piano versions of music from Francis Poulenc’s three commissioned ballets (Les animaux modèles, Les biches, and Aubade) – the latter, being originally scored for solo piano and eighteen instruments, is, in the composer’s own reduction, a particular tour de force. Igor Stravinsky’s own brilliantly idiomatic transcription of his 1910 ballet The Firebird is also available as a Naxos recording, played by Idil Biret. And that visionary musical exploration of William Blake’s Job illustrations by Vaughan Williams can now be experienced through the focussed clarity of Vally Lasker’s piano realization in Ian Burnside’s recent recording of Job: a masque for dancing for Albion Records. The music’s inner voicing, and many points of articulation and phrasing emerge in an entirely new way, while the solo medium in no way diminishes the sweep and insight of Vaughan Williams’s conception. The humble piano reduction takes centre stage!
Near to Salamone Rossi’s time, and working at the Mantuan court, is the harpist Abramino dall’Arpa. His story illustrates the unrelenting pressure brought on Jews to convert and, at the same time, Abramino’s refusal to do so. One reads, for example, that in 1582 Abramino and his son were convened to meet with a “master of theology,” but they didn’t show up, escaping to Ferrara. The authorities intensified their efforts. In June 1587 the singer Giovanni Andrea Robbiato, on the way back to Mantua with Abramino as his travel companion, is said to have explained to him that the “Christian religion … was the best and the only one to be practiced, superseding what Jews profess,” but Abramino “did not agree, even though he appeared to listen.” After arriving in Mantua, Robbiato took Abramino to the church of Santa Barbara to see the baptism of the duke’s grandson, and “Abramino appeared to be pleased with the ceremonies.” A monk clarified to him “the substance of the said sacrament of the Holy Baptism, explaining it by comparison with circumcision,” yet Abramino remained silent. Rumors of the incident immediately spread to the Jewish community, and in the evening Abramino’s uncle together with the rabbi Judah Moscato came to talk sense into him (Robbiato “approached to hear what they were saying, but they spoke Hebrew to keep him from understanding them”).
The Christians kept up their coercive endeavor, while at the same time the Jews urged Abramino to “continue in the Hebrew faith and not give ear to words spoken to him about becoming a Christian.” Infuriated, Duke Guglielmo ordered Abramino and the interfering Jews to be arrested and separately examined to determine once and for all what the musician’s intentions were. Did Abramino yield to the pressure? Apparently not, for five years later (1593, the last date we have for him) he is addressed as ebreo.
Similar pressure was probably brought on Rossi. He too resisted. But he didn’t resist the secularization of his music; his Italian vocal and his instrumental works follow the conventions of late Renaissance composition as practiced by Christians. Or do they? Is there anything about his works that, despite their otherwise Renaissance appearance, might be described as “Jewish”? Indeed, what is musically “Jewish”?
If anything “Jewish” can be detected in his vocal music, it is in the way Rossi fits his music to the words. For Rossi, music was subservient to the structural and affective demands of the text. But Rossi’s way of having the text dominate the music is by highlighting words through a plain, unobtrusive setting, as familiar perhaps from music in the synagogue, in particular the cantillation of Scriptures in which melodies don’t compete with the text. So what is Italian? What is Jewish? Only once, toward the end of his career, did Rossi allow the music to “compete” with the text in importance, in his Madrigaletti for two voices and basso continuo from 1628.
As a parallel question, one might ask: is there anything particularly Jewish about his instrumental works? Instrumental music didn’t win the approval of the rabbis, for it escaped the control of words and was often used in banqueting. The rabbis maintained that with the destruction of the Temple it was wrong to play instruments until the Messiah reinstated them by returning the Jews to Zion. Even so, instrumental music was recognized by the Jews as an expedient for spiritual elevation. Elisha, the prophet, is said to have requested a minstrel to come and awaken his powers of prophecy (in 2 Kings 3:15 one reads that when the minstrel played the power of the Lord came upon him).
For Rossi instrumental music was a natural vehicle of expression. In his instrumental works he wasn’t hampered by the semantic restrictions of words, rather he could forge his works as he desired. Not only that, but through his instrumental music he established his reputation at the court. Rossi was the only composer of instrumental music in Mantua, publishing four collections of instrumental works.
It was in his third collection of instrumental music, from 1613, that Rossi developed a more demanding, indeed virtuoso mode of expression. Rossi opened his third book of instrumental works with a sonata in a “modern” style (“Sonata prima detta la moderna”) and continues in this style with the remaining items in the collection, as in “Sonata terza sopra l’Aria della Romanesca”.
Rossi’s new approach to instrumental writing in this book directed him to try a new approach to vocal writing, as is clear from his last collection, the madrigaletti, which, in their style of writing, are truly “modern”. Whether these novel instrumental and vocal works improved Rossi’s situation in the court cannot be said. Perhaps they did, though as evidence to the contrary it might be recalled that in the years after 1613 Rossi turned his attention to composing Hebrew works. There he was under no pressure to be “modern”. The very notion of writing music to Hebrew according to the conventions of art music was, for a Jewish audience, itself “modern”. Here is another work from the “Songs by Solomon,” no. 29, “Adon ‘olam” (for eight voices).
Headline image credit: Opening of Salomone de Rossi’s Madrigaletti, Venice, 1628. Photo of Exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In February 2012 a group of young women wearing balaclavas went into Moscow’s most grandiose Russian Orthodox cathedral and sang about 40 seconds of an anti-Putin song they’d written, before being bodily removed from the premises. Pussy Riot quickly became a household name. The chorus of their “Punk Prayer” prevailed upon the Virgin Mary to kick Putin out of power, and included the line: “Shit, shit, holy shit.” That night, they mixed the footage into a longer version of the song and put it up on the web, where it went viral. Three of the group were caught and jailed a few weeks later. Ekaterina Samutsevich appealed her sentence successfully and was released on probation in October of that year, while Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina remained imprisoned. Having become an international cause celebre for freedom of speech, the two were released two months ahead of schedule in December 2013, in advance of the Sochi Olympics.
The Russian judge in Pussy Riot’s trial had condemned them to jail for two years for committing the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred“. In short, they were sentenced for an ostensible hate crime against Russian Orthodoxy. What is not well known, however, is that in her sentence Judge Marina Syrova claimed that Pussy Riot’s belief in “feminism” was at the heart of their anti-religious beliefs, and thus was the motivator for their crime. As Syrova elaborated:
“Affiliation with feminism in the Russian Federation is not a violation of the law or a crime. A series of religions, such as [Russian] orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, have a religious-dogmatic basis that is incompatible with the ideas of feminism. And while feminism is not a religious teaching, its representatives are invading such spheres of social relations as ethics, norms of decorum, relations in the family, [and] sexual relations, including nontraditional [sexual relations], that were historically built on the basis of a religious worldview. In the modern world, relations between nations and peoples, between various [religious] confessions, should be built on principles of mutual respect and equality. The idea of the superiority of one [belief], and, accordingly, the inferiority and unacceptability (nepriemlemosti) of another ideology, social group, [or] religion, gives grounds for mutual animosity and hatred, for interpersonal conflictual relations.”
In essence, the women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for being feminists.
After their release, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, now the “faces” of Pussy Riot, became the most sought-after female duo on the liberal speaker circuit. While in the United States, they gave a talk at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Forum in September 2014. I attended the event and asked a question: What had they thought of that particular part of the sentence, so little reported in the Western press? Tolokonnikova responded, “That was the most interesting part of the judge’s sentence for me, too.” She then told a story about how, during the trial — during which the prosecution complained that Pussy Riot had used swear words while inside the Church — she had asked Liubov Sokologorskaia, one of the witnesses for the prosecution (whose job was to mind the candleholders, icons, and blessed relics in the cathedral), whether “feminism” was a “dirty word” (brannoe slovo). “In the cathedral — yes,” was the response.
The Harvard Forum attendees laughed loudly at this story, but it captured an insidious theme at the trial. A week in, Larisa Pavlova, lawyer for the prosecution, had informed the court that feminism was a “mortal sin, like all unnatural manifestations associated with human life,” while outside the courthouse young people associated with the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, chanted slogans including, “The women’s revolt won’t be allowed,” and “Pussy should sit in a cell.” Apparently, Pussy Riot’s “crime” was not only to have spoken publicly against Putin, but to have embraced feminism and its dangerous defiance of traditional gender relations — a threat to the Russian church and state alike, as both depend on patriarchy for their legitimacy.