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2: Summer classics (part 1)

  • June 28, 2022June 28, 2022

In this episode we have a fun romp through the centuries exploring some summer-themed pieces. This is a transcript of the episode, which can be found on Spotify here. (Please note that full music tracks will only be available for Spotify premium subscribers, so I have included YouTube links to full performances in this post.)

Additionally, you can also find a playlist with all the pieces discussed today and some extras here on Spotify, or here on Youtube.

Hello and welcome to Classical Declassified, where we talk about and listen to classical music! Today I wanted to do a fun episode about summer, since we have just over a month of summer left.

The different seasons have long been a popular topic among poets and composers, with perhaps the most famous example in classical music being Vivaldi’s four seasons. But all composers knew about seasons, since they’re pretty hard to ignore, so Vivaldi is certainly not the only one to use them as musical inspiration.

Unlike last episode, the pieces today are not going to be strictly in chronological order, but in a progression that seemed fun and interesting to me. I don’t think the topic needs much further introduction, so let’s jump right in!

First up today is one of my favourite medieval ditties that’s been stuck in my head periodically ever since I first heard it in the first year of my undergrad. It’s called ‘Sumer is icumen in’, which is middle English for ‘summer has come in.’ It’s been a few months perhaps since summer has come in, but it’s still a fun song.

The composer is unknown, but the oldest copy of the original manuscript that’s been found was copied in the early 1260s, so we’re in the tail end of an era that’s sometimes referred to as the High Middle Ages. As the name suggests, this was a period with lots of social and political change. There was also a lot of change in art, architecture, and music. This was the time when illuminated manuscripts – those hand-copied books decorated with detailed illustrations – became popular, and the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was built.

Most of the music we have from this time was religious, since music notation came out of educated religious traditions, not secular traditions of everyday life. But we do have our little ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which was found in Reading Abbey though it probably wasn’t written down there.

This song is what’s called a ‘rota’, which is a kind of round – you know, where one person starts the song, and then a few words or a line in another person starts the exact same melody from the beginning and it harmonizes with what’s already going on.

Now, underneath the main song, which is in this round, we have an accompaniment that’s also a mini-round of one little line: [demonstrate].

The words are really just a celebration of summer, describing things like the loudly singing cuckoo, seed growing and blooming in the meadow, trees coming into leaf, bleating lambs, and so on.

And this song is subject of a delightful translation controversy – there’s one middle-english word used to describe the billy-goat that nobody is quite sure how to translate. Some say that the goat ‘has an axe to grind’, while others argue that in fact the billy goat is just farting. Considering the rest of the song, I do think that second one is far more likely, with Victorian sensibilities attempting to edit it by translating to something a little more delicate.

At any rate, this song is a real ear-worm. Let’s give it a listen. This version is performed by the Dufay collective, with a mix of instruments and voices, as would have been common in the middle ages too.

Now for something a little different we’re going to jump ahead almost six centuries to the romantic era composer Robert Schumann.

Robert Schumann was a respected German composer who lived from 1810 to 1856 and wrote in all sorts of genres from orchestral to chamber music, but who also wrote many songs, which in German are called ‘lieder’. Back then, these were often written in a set, called a ‘song cycle’, kind of like how today artists put out albums with songs that all have some sort of aesthetic or even thematic connection. Back in Schumann’s time, the connection was often that the composer would take a poems or a poetry set from one particular poet and set those to music.

Schumann’s opus 48 song cycle ‘Dichterliebe’, or ‘a poet’s love’, is his most well-known and uses texts by the German poet Heinrich Heine. Today we’re going to listen to the 12th song in the cycle: ‘Am leuchtenden sommermorgen’. In this short song, the poet talks about going out into the garden on a sunny summer morning, where he is silent as the flowers talk and whisper. The flowers look at him with pity and tell him ‘don’t be angry with our sister, you sad, deathly pale man.’

I don’t know. It’s a dramatic jilted poet thing. Taken out of context. You had to be there, I guess.

The recording we’re listening to today is sung by Matthias Goerne, who I think brings a lovely sensitive touch to the song. And you can almost hear the sunlight and the chattering flowers in the piano part.

Next we are going to listen to one of the most famous piece in classical music: Vivaldi’s four seasons. [insert clip from spring] Except we’re not going to listen to that part, we’re going to listen to the second season: summer

Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, or ‘Le Quattro Stagione’, is actually a set of four violin concertos, (or ‘concerti’ if you want to be fancy about it). In case you don’t know, a concerto is a piece of music for an orchestra and a solo instrument, in this case the violin. Back in the baroque era, which is the era Vivaldi is from, concertos could be with one solo instrument, or often with a group of solo instruments. But in this one it’s just the violin being the solo, or the main voice. Back then concertos were also a little shorter – Summer is a bit over ten minutes long. Later concertos were often easily half an hour longer.

Another interesting thing about this set of four concertos is that they’re an early example of something that was later called ‘program music’, or ‘programmatic music’. This is instrumental music that is about something outside of the music- a story or an idea that it tries to present through music – in this case, the four seasons of the year, and more specifically here, summer. I guess this is a good place to mention that all of the instrumental pieces we’ll be listening to today are program music, because they’re all in some way about summer. An example of something that would not be program music would be if you get a piece that’s simply ‘string quartet in F major’, and it doesn’t have any subtitles or anything it’s trying to represent except just a string quartet in F major.

One of the things I like about the four seasons though, is that each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet, possibly written by Vivaldi himself, about the season it’s describing.

These pieces are actually really fun for the musicians to play, because if you look in the score (the written music), Vivaldi wrote bits of the poems above the parts in the music to show what’s going on, even very specific different birds, for example, above different parts in the solo violin line. If you read music, this is a fun one to go look up the score on IMSLP and follow along.

The poem for summer isn’t describing a pleasant day at the beach, it’s describing one of those oppressive, hot, humid summer days just waiting for a thunderstorm. In the first movement, which we’re going to listen to in a moment, Vivaldi writes as a marking for the musicians ‘langourous in the heat’. ‘In the harsh season, a man languishes, the animals language, and the pines burn.’ We hear a slow introduction from the orchestra before the solo violin comes in with some excitement. Here the solo violin is representing different birds: first a cuckoo, then a turtledove and a finch. Eventually the bird song trails off into silence, and the orchestra comes in with some soft breezes stirring the air, but with the threat of the north wind, which arrives with vim and vigour, making the shepherd (the solo violin) tremble, fearing storms and his fate!

In the second movement, the shepherd can’t sleep for fear of lightning and thunder ,and bugs and flies and gnats buzz around his head. We hear the shepherd in a beautiful singing line from the solo violin, while the orchestra play the flies and gnats underneath, with occasional rumbles of distant thunder…

In the third and last movement, the shepherd’s fears come true and a furious storm breaks loose. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the thunder and lightning and the wind whipping through the fields.

We’re going to jump from the 1720s in Vivaldi’s Venice to Vienna in 1801, where an oratorio called ‘the Seasons’ by the composer Franz Joseph Haydn was being premiered. A few years previously, Haydn had composed and published another oratorio, ‘The Creation’, which had become immensely popular.

Franz Joseph Haydn spent most of his career as a musician and composer for the Esterhazy family at their castle. Basically this was a family rich enough to have their own private composer and small orchestra. Haydn’s job was literally to compose new music for their entertainment. After decades of working at this castle, which was pretty isolated from the rest of the musical work at that time, Haydn was given more freedom to leave the castle for his musical pursuits, and to publish his music. One of the things he did was visit England, and there he heard the baroque composer Georg Friedrich Handel’s oratorios. This is a name that’s probably familiar to you – Handel wrote the famous ‘Messiah’ oratorio which you probably all know.

As a side note, an oratorio is basically a work for orchestra and singers that tells often tells a story, much like an opera, but without the staging and acting like you see in an opera. There are a few reasons that this might have been popular: one is that it’s a lot cheaper when you don’t have to worry about sets and costumes, another is that for many Christians operas or theatre may have been rather frowned upon during the month of lent before Easter, and oratorios were not theatrical, and often had religious themes, and were therefore more permissible to put on. And in England, for one, many communities had established musical communities and groups, and because Handel wrote his oratorios in English, it was much easier for individual communities to put on an oratorio than an opera, and consequently it was easier for average people to get to listen to them. This was before the time of recordings, remember, so the only way to hear music was to hear it live, and not everyone could afford a ticket to the opera in London.

Anyway, back to our German friend Joseph Haydn, who was inspired by Handel’s oratorios and was working on his second oratorio. There are two important things involved in writing an oratorio, of course: the words, and the music. When you have a big work like an opera or an oratorio, we call the text for that a ‘libretto’. The person who writes the libretto is called the librettist, and in this case the librettist was Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an Austrian diplomat, librarian, and government official who, fun fact, also introduced the world’s first card catalogue – you know, the filing cabinets full of cards that they used to have in libraries before the internet, with a card for each book in the library containing information about that book. That’s irrelevant to Haydn, of course, but I thought that’s interesting.

Anyway, van Swieten based his libretto on a long English poem from 1730 by James Thornton, and tried to write the libretto simultaneously in German and in English, just as he had done for Haydn’s earlier oratorio, the Creation, since Haydn was very popular in England. I say he tried to do it on both languages, because he really wasn’t very good at English. In fact it’s so bad, that even most English choirs that perform the work do it in German! I feel like Haydn would roll his eyes and have a chuckle at that. The whole reason oratorios became popular in England in the first place was because they were in English, and people could actually understand them!

Most of the good recordings of this work are consequently also in German, but there have been some recent attempts to touch up the original libretto in order to have a decent English version. And because I sometimes like to hear what’s going on in a piece with words without having to pull up a translation all the time, we’re going to listen to an English version.

We’re going to be listening to just a few movements, but if you like it do go listen to the whole thing! There’s a very cool part at the end where a storm breaks loose, but since we just had a storm with Vivaldi we’re going to listen to some pieces at the beginning instead.

Just like Vivaldi, Haydn also uses tone painting. This is the term for using music to describe very specific things, just like Vivaldi did in ‘the Four Seasons’ with the solo violin imitating birds, and the orchestra in the third movement evoking thunder and lighting.

The first movement of Haydn’s ‘summer’ begins on a summer morning before the sun has risen. The orchestra comes in with that dark morning, maybe some whisps of fog making eerie shapes in the landscape. After the orchestral introduction, a singer comes in with the text describing what’s happening. It doesn’t really sound like a song though – it’s almost like he’s singing, but kind of saying the words – we call this a recitative, and it happens a lot in oratorios and in operas.

After he sings for a while, the mood lightens, the rooster crows (or the oboe in this case), and a horn calls the people to wake up.

We then get an aria (or a song) about the shepherd (or herdsman) gathering up his flock and heading out into the hills and meadows with them. You’ll hear that here it does feel like a song you could actually sing along with, unlike the recitative from earlier.

The world is slowly waking up, and the sun is about to come up. The following movement is a trio and chorus – first we get three solo singers describing the sun slowly coming up, and then the orchestra and chorus come in with a glorious sunrise, singing the praises of the sun.

To round out the first part of this summer exploration we’re going to jump ahead another two hundred years and switch to something a little more laid-back. Arthur Honegger was a Swiss composer who was a member of a group called ‘les Six’, a group of mostly swiss composers active from about the 1920s to the 1950s. Honegger lived most of his life in France, especially in Paris, but on a trip he took to Switzerland in 1920 he was inspired to write his first real orchestral work, a piece of about eight minutes long, called ‘Pastorale d’ete’, or, ‘summer pastoral’. It’s in a genre that we sometimes call a ‘tone poem’, which is a programmatic work for orchestra (without one main soloist or singers or choir in this one). A programmatic work ,remember, is a musical work that is about something outside of the music itself. There’s a little epigraph above the score by Arthur Rimbaud. The original French translates to: ‘I have embraced the summer dawn.’

I hope you enjoyed the pieces we talked about and listened to today. It turns out that summer was a pretty popular thing with composers, so I have a whole bunch more coming up for you in the next post. I’ll see you there!

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