Recent Posts in "Do You Know This Work?"

  • RECITAL PROGRAM NOTES, SPRING 2014 RECITAL PROGRAM NOTES,SPRING, 2014Many concert-goers have asked for more information about the compositions on my recital programs, so in March 2014 I started including comprehensive notes about ...
    Posted Mar 25, 2014, 1:22 PM by charles billington
  • A Poignant Take On An All-American Aria     A Poignant Take On An All-American Aria             In 1908 an obscure American tunesmith named Jack Norworth was riding the elevated in New York City when he saw a ...
    Posted Nov 1, 2013, 7:21 AM by Aaron Maass
  • A Gem by Alexander Borodin Do You Know This Work? The String Quartet #1 in A Major By Alexander Borodin           Alexander Borodin seems to have excelled in every field of endeavor he ever attempted.  Born ...
    Posted Mar 19, 2013, 6:12 PM by charles billington
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posted Mar 20, 2014, 10:06 PM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Mar 25, 2014, 1:22 PM by charles billington ]

SPRING, 2014

Many concert-goers have asked for more information about the
compositions on my recital programs, so in March 2014 I started
including comprehensive notes about each work and its composer. 

     Edward Grieg wrote The Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (1895) for his 25th wedding anniversary. Troldhaugen was the name of Grieg’s summer home, located in Norway’s Hardanger Mountain Range.  The festivities took place at the historic Hotel Fossli, located atop the Voringsfoss Waterfall, the highest in Europe.  The work is in three sections, Welcoming the Guests, Reflections, and Farewells.     

     Johannes Brahms wrote his monumental Third Piano Sonata (1853) when he was only twenty years old.  If Bach created musical cathedrals and Beethoven wrote the only compositions worthy of filling them, the “Third B” - Brahms – wrote the music of the Gods being worshipped.  Most of his works are finely crafted combinations of free Romantic spirit structured in strict classical form, and no composer depicted human emotion and feeling more poignantly. The second movement is actually a rather private musical communication he dedicated to young woman named Ida Hohenthal, who seems to have had captured more than his fancy.  The middle section is a very poignant conversation (right hand asking, left hand answering) between two passionate individuals, and throughout the work Brahms uses seven different motifs to depict the human heartbeat. The poem by Sternau which served as Brahms' inspiration seems to say it all.

     Ignace Paderewski was one of the most notable figures of the 20th century.  At various times he was a concert pianist of rock-star proportions, an accomplished classical composer, Prime Minister of Poland, architect (with President Woodrow Wilson) of the League of Nations, and a world-class Napa Valley vintner. His Minuet in G (1887) starts with the formal politeness of an Edwardian dance party, loses itself with some energetic abandon, and then gives way to a more introspective middle section (an interlude when the young women gather to discuss their dance cards?) , and ends in a bravura flourish. Paderewski's music is neglected today, but it should not be; those who familiarize themselves with the works of this genius are richly rewarded.     

     Franz Liszt took on at least three different identities during his lifetime: piano virtuoso the likes of which the world had never seen before; innovative Romantic composer often fascinated with both the sacred (Benediction to God Given in Solitude) and the profane (Mephisto Waltz); and man of the cloth (taking Catholic vows and becoming a tertiary). The Valse Oubliee (1883) falls somewhere in the middle.  Liszt’s use of unresolved harmonics and strange chordal patterns create an ominous atmosphere, but the themes and motifs throughout the work seem too engaging and darkly fascinating to ignore.

      Claude Debussy was fascinated by the art and music of different cultures, and his extensive body of piano works includes American cakewalks and rags, Middle Eastern dances, Asian landscapes, Scottish airs, and Spanish dances.  The Ballade Slave (1893) is one of his Russian works. The Slave refers to Slavic, and the Ballad  (story)  in this work may chronicle the life of a Slavic peasant in czarist Russia.  Toward the end of the piece (perhaps marking a funeral) one hears tolling church bells, a repetitious low F, a musical depiction common in Russian classical music.  

       His Danse {Tarantelle Styrienne} (1893) is a clever mix of two cultures, Italy (a tarantella is an Italian “spider dance”) and Austria (Styria was a province north of Vienna).  If the Ballade exemplifies how moving Debussy’s works can be, the Danse showcases his infectious rhythms, innovative harmonics, and joie de vivre. For many years this work was pianist Andre Watts’ signature showpiece 

       Gabriel Faure’s Third Impromptu is a free-wheeling “perpetual motion” work which exemplifies his complex harmonies, rich Gallic themes, and his use of ancient musical modalities. Faure’s influence on 20th Century music is unmistakable, even though he is relatively unknown in many musical circles. Faure was a master at creating clever modulations, and the cerebral, introspective nature of his writing, while reminiscent of Brahms, also foreshadows Rachmaninoff. Today he is probably best known for his choral works, which include the famous Requiem and also the haunting Cantique De Jean Racine.

A Poignant Take On An All-American Aria

posted Nov 1, 2013, 7:21 AM by Aaron Maass

    A Poignant Take On An All-American Aria
            In 1908 an obscure American tunesmith named Jack Norworth was riding the elevated in New York City when he saw a sign at the stop near the Polo Grounds that said “Baseball Game Today.”  The thought of seeing a New York Giants ball game instead of going wherever he was headed stayed with him the rest of the day.  He teamed up with his colleague Albert Von Tilzer and wrote a trivial little work that has remained in the public consciousness for more than 112 years: Take Me Out To The Ballgame. 

          Most people are well aware of the therapeutic benefits of music, and how serious music in particular has a beneficial effect on the human mind. Whether it is fostering the growth of an infant’s mind or exercising the synapses, plaques, and tangles of a forgetful octogenarian, music’s role as both mental exercise and cerebral nourishment cannot be underestimated.  I offer you a very moving essay which illustrates this very well.  It was written by Ms. Carrie Jackson of Evanston, Illinois.

          The song was written in 1908, sixteen years before he was born.  The words are simple but the melody jumps all over, making continuity difficult for my underdeveloped vocal cords.  But he could always carry a tune, and for some reason it’s his favorite, so we sing it over and over.

           Our repertoire used to be broader.  Bye Bye Blackbird, Me and Bobby McGee, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.  But now, when I start those, he mumbles “idontknowthatone”even though I think he does.  

          It’s been three days since my last visit and I’m hoping things are stable.  As I sign in at the nursing home, I try to ignore the stench of plastic, sanitary products, and institution food.  Making my way to the Alzheimer’s unit, I take a deep breath to compose myself.  I punch the code, and the doors swing open – he’s in the first room and I can immediately hear him yelling at the television. I shut it off, sit down on the bed, and take his hand. 

          “Is that better?” I ask.  Although he doesn’t remember my name, he usually can recall my face and the yelling stops.  “Where are we going?” he inquires, looking for me to answer that question and everything else that plagues his thoughts, or lack thereof.  “On a field trip”, I reply, and unlock the wheelchair to turn him around.  I push him down the hall and try to drown out the confused wails of the other residents.  We make it to the main dining room, where there is an ancient, out-of-tune piano.  Although it’s been more than a decade since I quit lessons, I open the music and start plucking.  I look to him for a sign of recognition, to see if he can pick out the tune, but his eyes are blank.  So I start singing:

Take me out to the ballgame…Take me out to the crowd…Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…I don’t care if I ever get back!...For it’s root, root, root for the home team…If they don’t win it’s a shame….For it’s One, Two, Three strikes you’re out!...At the old ballgame.

          And even though he barely speaks, he chimes in.  And even though he grew up in Boston, he shouts CUBBIES. And even though he’s been swearing all morning, he starts to smile. “Shall we sing it again?” And he nods, so we do. His smile has lifted my heart, and I sing a little louder this time.  Soon we are shouting as loud as a soft-spoken 31-year-old woman and debilitated 85-year-old man can, and the others in the room look over and smile. After a few more rounds, he is exhausted. I hole his hand for a moment, and we sit before packing up the music and turning to leave.

          I push him back to his room, and tell him that the Cubs have won two in a row and he still knows enough to be impressed.  I get him settled, put West Side Story in his VCR, then kneel next to him.  “I love you, Dad.  More than anything.  I’ll be back next week and we can play again.”  And even though his eyes are following Maria dancing on his TV, he gives me a silent nod, and I think I see the hint of a smile on his face.         

          Thanks to Carrie for this beautiful essay.  I’m sure Mr. Nortworth and Mr. Von Tilzer would echo that sentiment….

A Gem by Alexander Borodin

posted Mar 18, 2013, 10:03 AM by charles billington   [ updated Mar 19, 2013, 6:12 PM ]

Do You Know This Work?

The String Quartet #1 in A Major

Alexander Borodin


        Alexander Borodin seems to have excelled in every field of endeavor he ever attempted.  Born in 1833, he was the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman and a 24-year old peasant woman. Nevertheless Borodin’s father ensured that he had an excellent education: he finished medical school in Russia and received a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Heidelberg.  Returning to his native land, Borodin became one of the most distinguished chemists in Tsarist Russia, where he became a champion of women’s rights and helped establish a medical school for women in St. Petersburg.  In 1862, at the age of 29, he decided to study composition, and taught himself to play the cello, forever enriching the world of classical music with his decision. 


             Borodin falls into that group of composers whose fame and reputation are based on a relatively small sampling of their entire bodies of work.  His String Quartet #2 in D Major is by far his most well known chamber work, rife with melodic motifs that remain recognizable to this day.  The Kirby Stone Four popularized the second movement of this quartet in the late 1950’s with their hit Baubles, Bangles, and Beads. The third movement found new life years after its composition as the torch song This Is My Beloved.  While his String Quartet #1 in A Major never attained the staying power and popularity of its younger sibling, it is a work bound to enrich those who take the time to know it. Borodin spent three years writing his first quartet; it was time well spent.    


            Borodin’s training as a chemist seems to be apparent in the way he constructed the first movement, Moderato.  After a formal, slow-paced introduction, Borodin strings out a long, lush harmonic motif with extremely clever interplay between all four voices.  The first movement could almost be a molecular chain put to music.  Borodin hints at sections of Beethoven’s 13th string quartet (Op. 130), but he flavors those morsels with unmistakable Russian seasoning. His masterful writing for the cello is especially apparent in this movement.  As in many of his works, Borodin’s cello always seems to be the wisest and most thoughtful voice in the room. 


              There is a decidedly darker hue to the Andante con moto which follows.  By far the most introspective of the four movements, the Andante initially keeps its distance from the listener with a heavy Slavic severity, but it becomes somewhat more introspective and kindly before its conclusion. The chant-like motif appearing throughout the movement foreshadows what will come later.   


               In the third movement, Borodin does not keep his ideas or emotions at a distance whatsoever. One of the most remarkable Scherzos in the string quartet literature, this  movement flies off the page, taxing its performers and mesmerizing its audience.  The movement contains some of Borodin’s most original musical ideas, and he punctuates each one with an emphatic pluck of the strings before moving on to his next idea.


            As if to allow the performers a chance to catch their collective breath, Borodin has a lengthy Andante to introduce the fourth movement, the Finale.  The motif in the beginning is hauntingly familiar—it is the main theme of the Andante con moto played at an even slower tempo. The solemn introduction eventually gives way to a musical call to war, the agitated, driven main section of the Finale. With its terse rhythms, punchy syncopations, and unabashed passion, Borodin’s writing in this movement is the very essence of Russian romanticism, which finally gives way and ends with a triumphant, four-voice chorale.


Borodin’s String Quartet #1 in A Major: worthy of becoming a closer musical acquaintance.







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