Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hit Songs: Piano Sonata AKA Moonlight Sonata No. 14 by Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven


Piano Sonata No. 14 aka "Moonlight Sonata"
by Ludwig van Beethoven
composed 1802

  Ludwig van Beethoven is the fifth Artist (Mozart, Handel, Bach?) on this list to produce a tune that is remembered "today" by a large Audience.  The Moonlight Sonata, with a century of non-stop public domain levels of exploitation by modern  Advertisers, is intimately familiar to any living human, even if they only know it as the refrain from a local jewelry store ad.

 To give you an idea of how powerful Piano Sonata No. 14/Moonlight Sonata actually is, you can measure it's popularity vs EVERY mention of the proceeding Artist, Joseph Haydn.  Through 1940, the song was more frequently mentioned then Joseph Haydn himself.   Joseph Haydn was publishing 20 years earlier, so clearly Beethoven is reaping the benefit of a larger Audience for his published works and public performances.

 One of the issues I imagined Beethoven dealt with in the early 19th century was contrasting a likely Audience preference for symphonies with a lower-key but potentially as lucrative trade in shorter, simpler pieces of music.  I would guess that Beethoven tried to balance the demands.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Bird in a Gilded Cage by Arthur Lamb & Harry Von Tilzer

A Bird in a Gilded Cage
by Arthur Lamb & Harry Von Tilzer
published in cylinder format in 1900,
Edison Record #7587


   A Bird in a Gilded Cage was a best-seller in 1900, with published claims of over 2 million copies of sheet music sold.

  If you listen to either version of A Bird in a Gilded Cage, it's easy to date the song itself.  The fact that anyone would even think to claim that A Bird in a Gilded Cage sold a million copies is evidence that the United States possessed a large Audience for popular music circa 1900.  After The Ball allegedly sold five million copies as early as 1892, so that would push back the formation of this Audience a decade or even more.

 Even though the record player was invented in the 1870's, the technology wasn't really perfected until the turn of the century, thus, sheet music still selling in the millions during the 1890s, 1900s.   Now, the first million selling sound recording was Enrico Caruso's 1904 rendition of Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci.  That's two decades after After The Ball had already sold five million copies of sheet music.   And you know with that kind of volume there were plenty of songs that sold fewer then five million copies, but still sold a significant amount.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Tenant of Windfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Windfell Hall
 by Anne Brontë
published in 1848

  The Tenant of Windfell Hall was Anne Brontës hit.  I frankly question the wikipedia claiming it as an instant phenomenon- if you look at a Google Ngram comparing frequency of use between Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and this book, The Tenant of Windfell Hall does not even get off of a flat line.  More likely, The Tenant of Windfell Hall is a favorite of Junior Academics seeking tenure, least the Editors behind Boxall's 1001 Books To Read Before You Die- which contains The Tenant of Windfell Hall, along with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in case you DIE WITHOUT HAVING READ ALL THE NOVELS BY EVERY BRONTE SISTER.

  There is a clear influence of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on the histrionic tone of The Tenant of Windfell Hall.  Anne Brontës first novel, Agnes Grey, is much milder in terms of emotional content, and it is no wonder that it created a sensation with the frank depiction of drug addiction and what we would today call "domestic violence" although to be fair it's a very 19th century depiction of domestic violence.

 The two major stylistic differences between Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Windfell Hall is in the depiction of romantic lead Arthur Huntingdon as a drunken, morose disaster and the use of a framing device to introduce the central narrative of The Tenant of Windfell Hall: A written account of her failed marriage to the wealthy, roguish libertine, Arthur Huntingdon.  Arthur Huntingdon is notoriously based on Anne Brontës own brother, Branwell  Brontë.  Knowledge of that fact gives the reader rather a Freudian perspective when considering the central relationship between Helen and Arthur.

 Cleverly, the narrator of the framing narrative which encloses Helen's written account of her marriage is not Helen Huntingdon herself but rather a would-be suitor,  Gilbert Markham, to whom Helen Graham (as he knows her) is a bit of a mystery, what with her young son and insistence on anonymity.  Such a device was not unknown in the historical romances like those of Sir Walter Scott and his followers, "I found this ancient book and began to read what I now share with you..." but Markham's framing narrative encompasses almost 40% of the book, rather then being a simple introduction to a "found" text.

  The initial positive reception of The Tenant of Windfell Hall likely had something to do with Anne Brontë's ability to link the two narratives together in the service of a single story.

Hit Songs: Johann Sebastian Bach - Cello Suites Prelude

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cello Suites, solo compositions written for cello
by Johann Sebastian Bach
originally published 1717-1723

  Johann Sebastian Bach is a pre-modern musician, but his music successfully made the transition to the modern era with a large, current Audience that continues to exist.  Bach died in 1750, so his life span runs from the end of the 17th century into the middle of the 18th century.  Joseph Haydn wouldn't make the critical step to mass international acclaim until after Johann Sebastian Bach died, but Bach was a beneficiary of this achievement regardless.   Bach is certainly more popular TODAY than Joseph Hayden.  Bach has some 20 million total Last Fm listens, vs. Haydn with 1/10th the Audience.  It's no accident that Bach was included in the initial creation of "Classical Music" as a category.

  According to Spotify, the most popular Bach "song" is the Prelude from his Cello Suites.  The Cello suites are generally considered to be 6 individual compositions for the solo Cello.  The prelude is well known for its use of arpeggiated chords (as are the Smiths, or electronic music Artists.)  And the tune of the Prelude to Cello Suites is instantly recognizable to anyone who has been alive in the last 20 years.  The Prelude also happens to be under three minutes long, which is uncanny considering the Symphonies that were to command Audience attention after Bach's death.

  Johann Sebastian Bach had a significant "revival" a re-occurring phenomenon in Artistic communities of all types where the size of Audience for a specific Artists goes up decades after the initial publication of the Artists work.  A well documented example of this phenomenon is the multiple Jane Austen revivals in the 19th and 20th century.

  Bach was always a hired hand, working for a Church or School.  His career progression was from Church, to Government positions to the Court of Royalty as an appointed Court musician, and in this aspect Bach is firmly pre-modern.  Bach did not possess the contractual independence that Joseph Haydn achieved at the end of the 18th century.

  This Youtube video of Johann Sebastian Bach's cello suites prelude being peformend has 10 million views.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hit Songs: Guillaume Dufay: Missa L'Homme, Kyrie

Guillaume Dufay: Missa l'Homme, Kyrie

    During the Renaissance, individual musicians emerged in much the same way as did other Artists of the time: out of craft guilds and via patronage by wealthy merchants/royalty.  Thus, Florence played the same outsize role in the patronage of Renaissance Music as it did in other Artistic disciplines like painting, sculpture and architecture.

  Unlike the religion based songs of the Middle Ages, many of the Renaissance era Songs have Artists firmly attached and it during the Renaissance that the "modern" concept of Artistic identity became to flourish.  It's important to recognize that Music was behind more popular Arts like Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  During the Renaissance, Music was a poor cousin.   Blanning's so-called "rise of music" is an 18th century affair.

Missa L'Homme, Kyrie, by Guillaume Dufay

 Issues of Artistic identity aside, you can hear the difference between the 6th century, anonymously authored Vexila Regis and the Renaissance era Missa L'Homme, Kyrie, by Guillaume Dufay.  Guillaume Dufay was "the most famous composer in Europe in the mid 15th century, for whatever that was worth.

 Of course you can also hear the similarities (they are both chants without instrumentation.)  It would only be a couple hundred years later that Mozart and Beethoven would emerge to change that for good.

 You  can see by a quick glance that Dufay did not have a large popular Audience, but was popular with other musicians and patrons. This was probably because his song writing was more stylistically complex, or as Wikipedia says, "one of the first to use the harmonies, phrasing and expressive melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance.His compositions within the larger genres (masses, motets and chansons) are mostly similar to each other; his renown is largely due to what was perceived as his perfect control of the forms in which he worked, as well as his gift for memorable and singable melody. (WIKIPEDIA)

  I think there is value in familiarity with songs forms going back to the Renaissance because it gives a different musical twist with song forms that are deeply, deeply embedded in Audiences because of the strong influence of religion.

 Dufay looms large in the academic discipline of Medieval and Renaissance Music.  A typical title in the field demonstrates a small industry of Dufay:

    Alma redemtoris materAve regina (motet), Exultet celum laudibusGloria ad modum tubaeMissa   Ave reginaMissa Caput,
     excerpt from, stylistic analysis of, tenor of;
Missa Ecce ancilla, Missa L'homme arme, Missa Se la face, Missa sine nomine;
 Office for St. James,
Resveilles vous. (1)


(1) Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, W.W. Norton & Co., published 1950.

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