Monday, September 17, 2007

Impressionism in Music

Episode Number: 010
Title: Impressionism in Music
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and recorded on September 17th, 2007
Exit Music: Pavane pour une infante défunte - Ravel (1899)

Impressionist music is now seen as a response to the Romantic period’s emphasis on individual expression. The major-minor tonal system had been almost completely explored by composers such as Richard Wagner. Claude Debussy is seen as the main proponent of the impressionist movement, even though he did not consider himself an “impressionist” composer and despised being described as such. Maurice Ravel and others who studied Debussy’s techniques are also considered impressionist composers, though no composer strictly adhered to Impressionist styles and his/her music can not be completely dumped into the category of Impressionism. Some of these other French composers include Paul Dukas, Gabriel Fauré and Erik Satie.

Impressionism, according to Grove Music Online is "A philosophical, aesthetic and polemical term borrowed from late 19th-century French painting."1 The term was coined in 1874 by art critic Louie Leroy after visiting an exhibition featuring works by Monet, Renoir, Degas and a handful of other French painters. Monet’s Impression, Sunrise was targeted more than some of the other works and thus the term impressionism was coined. These painters used innovative techniques to portray their subjects that differed from the current standards of painting in the French art scene during the mid-late 1800s. Some of these techniques included using short dark strokes to portray the essence of the subject2 rather than the subject itself, the color black was avoided, and wet paint is painted over wet paint before it is allowed to dry, which produced softer edges as the colors mixed. There are more techniques than this and these techniques were certainly used before, however the “Impressionists” were the first to use all them together. The effect that these artists strove to achieve was to portray the essence of their subjects, or rather recreate the human eye’s first reaction to a real-life subject.

The term “impressionism” was not wholly connected to music until the 1880s. The word was first used to describe music in 1887 by the secretary of the Académie des Beaux Arts to attack Claude Debussy’s piece entitled Printemps.1 Much like how impressionist art sought to give the effect that seeing something has on the mind impressionist music sought to do as well through hearing. Debussy was not the first to do this; Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony is considered by some historians to be an attempt to recreate impressions of nature through music. Many other composers even earlier during the Baroque and Classical periods sought to portray their emotions through sound, which falls under the idea of impressionism. Though it may not have been Claude Debussy that first applied the ideas of the Impressionist movement to music, he extended any previous attempts made by earlier composers as mentioned above to paint the visual world through sound alone. It was Debussy’s music that made the largest impact on the musical community and the future of Western art music. Some of the musical techniques that Debussy used to evoke impressionist sounds in the orchestra included having singers hum rather than sing, using muted cymbals and harp harmonics. Delius and Ravel would later also use a closed-lip choir after Debussy. These techniques were used to not only represent nature (like many of the impressionist painters chose to do) but to “reflect mysterious correspondences between nature and the imagination.”1

Advances in acoustics and the study of sound intrigued the impressionist composers and they used new techniques to affect listeners in different ways. The rules for creating progressions of chords were broken down and more emphasis was placed on creating progressions of colors and rhythms. Dukas stated “[it is] a series of sensations rather than the deductions of a musical thought.” Techniques such as adding ninths, elevenths and thirteenths to chords to extend the harmonies even farther than simple major and minor chords were used, as well as using wide ranges of dynamics (from really soft to really loud) and wide ranges in the instruments’ registers (low notes versus high notes). Parallel chords were used by having all the musical lines move in the same direction. For example, if the melody moved up a major 3rd, so would all the other lines at the same time. This technique is also called planing. Sometimes 3rds were omitted and fourths and fifths were stacked upon each other creating quartal and quintal chords. The strong V to I cadences (also known as authentic cadences)used so much in Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music was often substituted for V9 to I or even III to I cadences. A cadence, for those of you unfamiliar with the term is the musical punctuation ending a phrase of music. Here is an example of an authentic cadence where the “five” chord moves to a “one chord”. Here is what it sounds like with a five-nine chord, when the ninth is added to the chord. Here is what it sounds like when the “three” chord is substituted for the “five” and goes cadences on “one”. The goal as composer Dukas puts it is not to create dissonances but “make multiple resonances vibrate”. It was believed that these techniques would have subtle effects upon the listeners’ nervous system, accentuating the impression of the subject the composer wished to portray. Some popular subjects were water, fog, clouds, and night, and the impressionist composers tried to “paint” these subjects with sounds. Nature was a popular subject in impressionist music, as in impressionist painting. Timelessness was a sensation written into the music, and to achieve this composers used extended tremolos (playing the same note repeatedly very fast), certain types of repetition of melodic fragments, and non-traditional scales such as pentatonic (only has five notes) whole tone (no half steps in between any notes) and medieval modes. The pentatonic modes used in Javanese gamelan music had a great influence on Debussy when he heard them at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889.

Impressionism was a brief period in the history of Western music that followed the Romantic period. By the twentieth century the movement fizzled out, but its techniques did not vanish. Neo-impressionism emerged as composers fused techniques made popular by composers like Claude Debussy with new innovations of their own contriving.

Maurice RavelClaude Debussy


1 Jann Pasler: 'Impressionism', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 10-11-2007),

3. Benward, Bruce and Marilyn Saker. Music in Theory and Practice, Volume II. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.

The Harmony of the Worlds - Kepler's Ideas on Music

Episode Number: 009
Title: The Harmony of the Worlds - Kepler's Ideas on Music
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and recorded on September 17th, 2007
Exit Music: In me transierunt - a motet by Orlando di Lasso

Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician, philosopher and astronomer who lived between 1571-1630.  One of his biggest contributions to the study of astronomy was his three laws of planetary motion. Without delving too deeply into physics, basically these laws state that planets orbit the sun in ellipses rather than circles, and that the planets travel faster when closer to the sun and slower when farther away from the sun. It also states that planets with larger orbits move slower than those with smaller orbits. His work was grounded in the idea that God created the world according to a specific plan, and that plan could be realized through reason. In 1619 he wrote Harmonices Mundi (translated as The Harmony of the Worlds) which in certain sections investigates musical harmony in relation to planetary motion.

When we think of Kepler we generally don’t think about how much music was a part of his life. His discoveries and theories in the different areas of math and science tend to take the spotlight away from the other aspects of his life. In school and throughout his adulthood he was surrounded by music and as part of his schooling was required to participate in many musical activities each week. When Kepler was as young as five years old he practiced Latin hymns and sequences as well as German psalmody in school everyday; he also had weekly theory lessons to compliment his musical training. As a theology student at Tübingen he studied music along with all of his other fellow students. Singing three times a week to keep musicianship sharp was encouraged by the school and during this period Kepler participated in many musical gatherings. In 1600 he went into the service of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, where practical and theoretical music on the court were equally appreciated. Here experimental instruments like the “perspective lute” which tried to relate color with musical tones and automatic keyboard instruments that played when exposed to sunlight were born. It was also here that Kepler tried to notate a Turkish priest’s prayers as the priest sang them for the Turkish ambassador. So, throughout Kepler’s life he was surrounded by and was either actively or passively a part of music. Around this time Kepler began advocating a new method of tuning (though he did not create this method). Previously instruments were tuned using the Pythagorean method, which is intended to make intervals of fourths and fifths as perfect as possible. However, this meant that intervals of a third and a sixth could not be perfect. This was acceptable though because fourths and fifths were the most common intervals in medieval music and thirds and sixths were considered dissonances. However, as philosophies changed during the Renaissance thirds and sixths were now considered consonant and more desirable so a different tuning method was needed so that these intervals would sound “in tune”. Just intonation was devised and to support it Kepler stated

[Pythagoreans] were so much given over to this form of philosophizing through numbers that they did not even stand by the judgment of their ears, though it was by their evidence that they had originally gained entry to philosophy; but they marked out what was melodic and what was unmelodic, what was consonant and what was dissonant, from their numbers alone, doing violence to the natural prompting of hearing.

Regardless of which tuning system is being used, the intervals between notes are measured in ratios, such as 3:2 or 3:5. Although Pythagorean tuning looked better in theory, Kepler valued practical judgment over numbers alone. By only using numeric ratios to devise musical intervals was foolish, as the ear would tell you that this is not practical.
Complex polyphonic music of the Renaissance replaced the monophonic music and simpler polyphonic music of the medieval period. Polyphony, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a type of musical texture that has more than one independent melody played together. Monophony is simply one melody sounded at a time. Gregorian chant is monophonic, but a Bach fugue is polyphonic. When there is one dominant melody supported by chords, we refer to that texture as homophonic. Kepler was trained in music dating back to the early medieval period through his present day. He was particularly fond of the late Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, of whom Kepler cites many times in Harmonices Mundi. More precisely, it is one of di Lasso’s motets entitled In me transierunt that receives the most attention from Kepler. To Kepler, the planets in orbit sang together in harmony a la di Lasso’s harmonies creating a “cosmic motet” In Harmonices Mundi Kepler writes that with the advent of “modern” polyphony God reveals to us the secrets of the creation of the universe.

In this “cosmic motet” Kepler assigns a part to each known planet. Mercury gets to be the soprano voice because it is a “treble voice and is the most free”. Earth and Venus share the alto voices because of their “narrow distances between motions” and because “the alto which is nearly the highest is in a narrow space.” Mars gets to be the tenor voice because it “is free yet proceeds moderately.” Saturn and Jupiter share the bass voices because the “basses make harmonic leaps.” Each voice sings an independent song simultaneously creating a complex polyphonic work. Kepler notes that as the six songs interweave they create passing dissonance, as well as syncopations and cadences. When each planet reaches its farthest and closest distances from the sun it creates a rare consonance with the other planets. Of course Kepler notes that the planets do not actually make sound as they pass around the sun, but that the “cosmic harmony reflects the relative minimum and maximum angular velocities of the planets, as measured from the sun”. In other words, the differences between the minimum and maximum angular speeds of orbiting planets correspond directly to a harmonic ratio. Earth’s ratio is 16:15 which happens to be a semitone or half-step. In the six note hexachord system of Kepler’s time the half-step was found between only between mi and fa. In the cosmic motet Earth sings mi and fa, which also happens to be the first two letters of the words misery and famine. I guess this is what Kepler believed the Earth had to contribute to the polyphony of God’s universe. Di Lasso’s In me transierunt also opens with this semitone pattern, using mi, fa, mi. This may be why Kepler cites this motet so much in Harmonices Mundi. As to how the planets move, Kepler states

They advance from one extreme to the opposite one not by leaps and intervals, but with a continually changing note, pervading all between (potentially infinite) in reality. I could not express that in any other way but by a continuous series of intermediate notes.

Johannes Kepler made it clear that he himself was not a composer or even a very good musician. However, he understood music theory pretty well and was able to draw parallels between music theory and astronomy by using mathematics ratios. The fact that this comparison was more than just metaphor sets him apart from others who shared similar beliefs during and before his time. He believed that musical notes should not be governed by numbers alone because the resulting music ended up impractical. Kepler also liked to stress the importance of the practice of music over the theory of music.


Peter Pesic, “Earthly Music and Cosmic Harmony: Johannes Kepler’s Interest in Practical Music, Especially Orlando di Lasso” Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 11, no. 1 (2006)

The French Horn vs. The English Horn Part II

Episode Number: 008
Title: The French Horn vs. The English Horn, Part II
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and recorded on September 17th, 2007

The English horn is a double-reed instrument and a member of the woodwind family. It resembles the oboe, but is pitched lower and sounds more like an oboe d’amore. If these instruments were to form a family like the violin, viola and cello instruments do the oboe would be the soprano voice, while the oboe d’amore would be the mezzo-soprano and the English horn the tenor voice. The English horn is pitched an interval of a fifth below the oboe, and the bass oboe is pitched one octave below the oboe.

The oboe family of instruments evolved from the European shawm, which in turn evolved from the surnay of the Middle East. All of these instruments function almost the same way, by forcing air through a double-reed that is attached to a wooden tube. A double-reed is made by taking a stem of grass or cane (hence the name reed) and folding it in half. It is then scraped until it is thin and the two ends can vibrate against each other. Reeds don’t usually last too long so they have historically been made by what is readily available. The modern oboe reeds come from the Arundo donax plant, otherwise known as the Giant Reed. This plant grows in moderately saline waters in semi-tropical regions. Other instruments that use double-reeds are the bagpipe of Scotland, and most likely the aulos of ancient Greece. On a side-note, the aulos can be seen being played in the movie “300” as the Spartans march into battle. The aulos probably did accompany Spartan kings into battle so this is one point the movie actually got right.

As I’ve already mentioned the oboe developed from the double-reed instrument called the shawm, which was popular in Europe from roughly the 12th century until the 17th century. It appears that the oboe began to emerge as a different instrument from the shawm in the mid 17th century in France. At this point in time both the shawm and this new instrument were both referred to as the hautbois, which means “high wood”. Jean-Baptiste de Lully, a French baroque composer helped form what became known as an orchestra by combining wind instruments with stringed instruments. The early oboe now had to be able to play along and blend with the strings, which the shawm wasn’t able to do. The instrument was lengthened, the reed was altered and the holes were drilled differently which allowed more versatile fingerings as well as requiring less air pressure from the player. In 1685 King Louis XIV renounced the Edict of Nantes causing many Protestants to leave France. This would have a damaging effect on France but one positive effect was that the exodus of protestants, which included many skilled and industrious individuals (such as musicians) helped spread the oboe over Europe; French music and musicians were well received throughout Europe, in places like Madrid, London, Vienna and Venice. At this point the oboe lost all of its ties with France with the exception that throughout Europe the name for this instrument was based on the French name of hautbois.

In the late 1600’s the oboe was primarily used in bands much like how the shawm was used, but by the end of the century composers began including it in their chamber music compositions. From roughly 1700-30 we find some of the most innovative profound music ever written during one particular period of the oboe’s history. After 1730 however the manufacturing of the oboe began to use different methods in different parts of Europe. This caused the oboe (still called the hautbois) to vary in shape and sound depending on where it was made. The virtuoso hautbois of Europe during this time were actually found in Italy, rather than France. The Italian virtuosos that traveled through Europe helped standardize pitch, which had a’ at 440 cycles per second. This frequency had long been the standard in Venice and now was being spread throughout the continent. This standard remains today in Western music.

As the oboe was being built differently all over Europe, different sizes were being built to allow different ranges of notes to be played. The oboe da caccia, which was curved and leather-covered, was pitched in F to be a tenor oboe. It was only produced in a few places in Central Europe. Shortly after 1720 someone added a bulbed-bell to the oboe da caccia (which created a new instrument) and later in the century they were built with a gentler curve. Eventually the oboe da caccia with a bulbed-bell was built to be straight, but during this time while both curved and straight tenor oboes were being built they reminded people of the horns that Angels played, as portrayed in medieval and later religious artwork. In Middle German the word for “angelic” was engellisch. The word engellisch also meant English and eventually the two meanings became merged causing the “angelic” horn to be the “English” horn.

By the late 18th century, the english horn became closely associated with Italian opera and in the early 19th century it became an established instrument in France. Hector Berlioz used the English horn a lot in his earlier works. Oddly, in the mid 19th century German orchestration books barely even mentioned the instrument. It became popular in Germany again when Richard Wagner heard the english horn in Paris and returned to make extensive use of the instrument in his compositions. By the end of the 19th century and early 20th century it was now an established solo voice within the orchestra (meaning that it wasn’t interchanged with the oboe). The English horn is now used in solo, chamber and orchestral works alike.

Hopefully after listening to this episode and the previous episode you will now be able to explain the differences between the French and english horns to an inquiring individual. To recap, the French horn’s history is rooted in the actual horn of animal, justly giving it the right to be called a horn. The english horn is called a horn only because it reminded people of the horns that angels played in medieval artwork. The French horn as we know it today developed mostly in Germany but is called French because the concept and playing style probably was borrowed from France and the modern French horn does resemble the hunting horn used in France at the time it began being developed for use as an instrument. The English horn as we know it today developed in Central Europe between Germany and Italy but is called English because the German word for Angelic and English were the same, and remember it was named so because it resembled the horns that the angels played in medieval artwork. And, most importantly, the english horn is made from wood and uses a double-reed to produce sound while the French horn is made completely of metal and uses the buzzing of the lips on the mouthpiece to produce sound. Both instruments take great skill and a lot of patience to master because a good, clean tone is not easily produced without a lot of practice.

Cor Anglais (English Horn)


Grove Music Online

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The French Horn vs. The English Horn, Part I

Episode Number: 007
Title: The French Horn vs. The English Horn, Part I
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Exit Music: Horn Concerto No.4 in E flat major KV.495 - W.A. Mozart
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and recorded on September 9th, 2007

There are many differences between the English horn and the French horn, and each horn musician, respectively, is more than willing to explain the differences between the two. To those of us stringed instrument players and players of different instruments, or those of you not familiar with the two different horns at all, the naming of these two can be rather confusing. After all, the English horn isn’t really a horn, and really isn’t English either. The French horn is a horn, but not exactly French. And isn’t a horn something that grows on the head of an animal anyways?

Since prehistoric times, animal horns have been used by humans to create sounds, but not necessarily for music. By blowing air through a hollowed-out animal horn, the air vibrates the horn, which resonates inside, and the conical opening amplifies and projects the sound. Eventually, animal horns were duplicated with wood or metal and used the same way. The ancient Scandinavians used an instrument called the Lur, which looked like a wooly-mammoth tusk, in war to rally troops and scare the enemy.

In the early 17th century hunting became a popular aristocratic sport, and the horn was used in the hunt. The horn became curved rather than just being a straight piece of metal. Hunters began experimenting with different shapes as it was realized that this affected the sound and what range of notes could be played. In 1636 Marin Marsenne described four different types of horns in his book, Harmonie Universelle: Le grand cor, which means the big horn, le cor qui n'a qu'un seul tour which means the horn which has only one turn, the cor à plusiers tours, which means the horn of several turns, and le huchet which means the horn with which one calls from afar. These horns began to be introduced in concert halls, though they were usually used as special effects to help depict the hunt on stage because the method of playing them was too still too crude to be blended with an orchestra. Count Franz Anton von Sporck is credited with bringing the art of horn playing from France to Bohemia where a more refined method of playing the horn developed there, and as well as Austria and Germany. The Count was a hunting aficionado as well as a generous patron to the arts. Sometime in the 1680’s the Count was participating in a hunt in France and when hearing the cor de chasse (which was a type of horn to be heard from afar) being played during the hunt he instructed two of his men to be taught how to play it.

As the horn grew in popularity, Baroque composers began to write more refined parts for the horn, as the technique for playing began to be more refined. Since the instrument was simply a curved tube of metal it was limited to sounding the natural frequencies of which the metal was able to vibrate. This includes the fundamental pitch, as well as all the other notes along the harmonic series. The harmonic series is a series of notes that are double, three times, four times, etc. the frequency of the fundamental pitch and are very important to brass instruments. By manipulating a brass instrument these different harmonics or partials as they are often called can be individually sounded. Each harmonic gets closer and closer together as the series progresses, beginning with an octave, then a fifth, to eventually seconds and even smaller. If you thought that was too much physics for a music lesson, just know that the early horns were able to play multiple notes, but were limited to a series of notes related to one key signature. So, when a horn player had to play in a different key, he or she had to grab a different horn that had a different length of tubing, allowing a different series of notes. In the early 1700’s it was realized that by adding a length of tubing to one horn was more practical than carrying around multiple horns and thus the crook was invent. The crook was a piece of curved tube that could be attached to the horn, giving the tubing additional length. Now, the player could simply carry around his horn (which was usually pitched at Bb or F) and multiple crooks rather than carry around multiple horns. In the mid 1700’s a virtuoso horn player by the name of Anton Hampel playing on the Dresden court developed a technique that involved placing the right hand inside the bell of the instrument, which altered the pitches that sounded. By adjusting the hand, notes OUTSIDE of the harmonic series were able to be played, and combined with the use of crooks for the mouthpiece and middle of the horn, the horn of the Classical era (known as the Orchestral Horn) was a pretty versatile instrument. Mozart and Haydn wrote some very notable pieces for this horn, the most famous being Mozart’s horn concerti. Catch the third movement to Mozart’s 4th concerto at the end of this episode.

In the early 1800’s the valve was invented to automatically switch the flow of air through other lengths of tube included on the instrument. The piston valve was first invented which led to the rotary valve in the mid 1800’s. By the end of the 1800’s the rotary valve was more popular than the piston valve, and crooks were no longer needed along with the hand horn technique. These horns used three triggers to control three valves and in 1897 the first “double horn” was introduced by a German horn maker. The double horn consisted of two horns combined into one, with a fourth trigger to activate the other tubing. The second horn was pitched higher which allowed for clearer and easier-to-control notes in the higher registers. Now the triple horn, which combines an even higher pitched horn, is gaining popularity amongst professional horn players.

So after listening to me talk about all the German innovations to the way the instrument was played and built, why do we not call it the German horn? Well, actually the U.S., Britain and Canada are the only countries to really refer to this instrument as the “French” Horn. Most of Europe has always has and still does refer to it as simply “the horn” or “horn in F”. Nobody knows for sure why it became known as the French horn. The distinction was probably made back in its days as being primarily used as a hunting instrument. It could be that it was in France that the Germans got the idea from when the technique was brought to them by Count Franz Anton von Sporck. Another more popular possibility is that the British and French hunting horns differed in size, and the size of the horn eventually used in the orchestra reminded the British of the hunting horns used by the French.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007