Josquin des Prez : Passed away in the year 1521, the 27th of August

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Josquin des Prez, also spelled Desprez, des Prés, or Després (born c. 1450, Condé-sur-l’Escaut?, Burgundian Hainaut [France]—died Aug 27, 1521, Condé-sur-l’Escaut), one of the greatest composers of Renaissance Europe.

In an era when music was generally performed a few times before being replaced by something newer, Josquin des Prez was a rarity: a composer who was remembered and honored long after his death. Throughout the sixteenth century, his works were cited in theoretical treatises and extensively quoted in the music of other composers. In 1538, seventeen years after Josquin died, Martin Luther extolled him as “the master of the notes, which must do as he wishes, while other composers must follow what the notes dictate.” Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Josquin’s music was not entirely forgotten, while the nineteenth century saw him acclaimed (alongside Palestrina) as one of the two greatest composers of the Renaissance.

Josquin’s early life has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and the first solid evidence of his work comes from a roll of musicians associated with the cathedral in Cambrai in the early 1470s. During the late 1470s and early ’80s, he sang for the courts of René I of Anjou and Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, and from 1486 to about 1494 he performed for the papal chapel. Sometime between then and 1499, when he became choirmaster to Duke Ercole I of Ferrara, he apparently had connections with the Chapel Royal of Louis XII of France and with the Cathedral of Cambrai. In Ferrara he wrote, in honour of his employer, the mass Hercules Dux Ferrariae, and his motet Miserere was composed at the duke’s request. He seems to have left Ferrara on the death of the duke in 1505 and later became provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé.

Josquin was particularly adept at the canon, or a composition of overlapping vocals. If you have ever sung Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round, you have sung a canon. A canon can utilize one voice or as many as four or five voices, and as the strictest form of polyphony, it requires great skill on the part of the composer. The motet, Ave Maria, gratia plena, is an excellent example of canonic writing with the four voices overlapping each other in perfect imitation, one after the other.

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In some of his masses, Josquin employed an older style known as the cantus firmus, an existing melody composers used as a basis for a composition. For instance, Missa Fortuna desperata is a cantus firmus mass that uses the polyphonic song Fortuna desperata as its musical foundation. Josquin also composed parody or paraphrase masses, which became increasingly popular during his life and eventually replaced the cantus firmus style. A parody or paraphrase mass transforms an existing melody by breaking it into sections and scattering it throughout the composition, mostly by using different voices. For example, Missa Pange lingua is a paraphrase mass that Josquin composed in approximately 1515. It was also his last mass.

The cause of Josquin’s death, on August 27, 1521 remains unknown; but his end seems to have been expected, since, a few days earlier Josquin established his will in the presence of the mayor of Condé and other witnesses. The law of the time stated that a lord could claim rights over the property of the inhabitants of his fief when they died, unless they paid a tax, which Josquin did on this occasion. He was then able to request that his possessions be given to the church’s chapter.

After Josquin’s death, the chapter paid him homage through a regular commemorative service, endowed by the sale of his house. On this house was attached an image of the Virgin Mary, and it remained customary during processions to pause by the house, face the image, and sing Josquin’s settings of the Ave Maria and Pater Noster.

The church of Condé was destroyed in 1793, during the anticlerical turmoil that followed the French Revolution. Thus, Josquin’s tomb no longer exists. However, the inscription on the tombstone was copied into a seventeenth-century manuscript, the English translation of which reads as follows:

Here lies Josse despres
Provost of these grounds he once was:
Pray to God for those who have passed away
Him who gives them his paradise.

Passed away in the year 1521, the 27th of August:
You have always been my hope

Ernst Krenek : August 23, 1900 – December 22, 1991

Ernst Krenek (August 23, 1900 – December 22, 1991) was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin. He explored atonality and other modern styles and wrote a number of books, including Music Here and Now (1939), a study of Johannes Ockeghem (1953), and Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music (1974).

Krenek’s music encompassed a variety of styles and reflects many of the principal musical influences of the 20th century. His early work is in a late-Romantic idiom, showing the influence of his teacher Franz Schreker, but around 1920 he turned to atonality, under the influence of Ernst Kurth’s textbook, Lineare Kontrapunkt, and the tenets of Busoni, Schnabel, Erdmann, and Scherchen, amongst others.[7]

A visit to Paris, during which he became familiar with the work of Igor Stravinsky (Pulcinella was especially influential) and Les Six, led him to adopt a neo-classical style around 1924. Shortly afterward, he turned to neoromanticism and incorporated jazz influences into his opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up, 1926) and one-act opera Schwergewicht (1928). Other neoromantic works of this period were modeled on music of Franz Schubert, a prime example being Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen(1929).

Krenek abandoned the neoromantic style in the late 1920s to embrace Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique, the method exclusively employed in Krenek’s opera Karl V(1931–33) and most of his later pieces. His most uncompromising use of the twelve-tone technique was in his Sixth String Quartet (1936) and his Piano Variations (1937). In the Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae (1941–42) Krenek combined twelve-tone writing with techniques of modal counterpoint of the Renaissance.

In 1955 he was invited to work in the Electronic Music Studio at WDR in Cologne, and this experience motivated him to develop a total serial idiom. Beginning around 1960 he added to his serial vocabulary some principles of aleatoric music, in works such as Horizon Circled (1967), From Three Make Seven (1960–61), and Fibonacci-Mobile (1964).

In his later years his compositional style became more relaxed, though he continued to use elements of both twelve-tone and total serial techniques.

Wikipedia secondary sources

  • Krenek, Ernst (1964). “A Composer’s Influences”. Perspectives of New Music 3, no. 1 (Autumn-Winter): 36-41
  • Purkis, Charlotte (1992b). “Krenek, Ernst”. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie, 4 vols. London: Macmillan Press.
  • Bowles, Garrett H. (comp.) (1989). Ernst Krenek: A Bio-bibliography. New York and London: Greenwood Press.
  • Bowles, Garrett H. (2001). “Krenek, Ernst”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

Remembering Ustad Bismillah Khan : shehnai master

Ustad Bismillah Khan

Bismillah Khan was named Qamaruddin to sound like his elder brother’s name Shamsuddin. However, when his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan saw him as a baby he uttered the word “Bismillah” and hence he came to be known as Bismillah Khan. His father used to be a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon. Despite the fame that he achieved, Bismillah Khan always remained where his roots were. He never accumulated wealth and other materialistic possessions and lived in humble surroundings in the holy city of Benares. Such was his love for his city that he declined an offer for permanent Visa for settling in US.

His teacher and mentor was his uncle Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, a renowned shehnai player. Bismillah Khan religiously practiced the shehnai and attained perfection in a very short time. He fully takes the credit for making the shehnai one of the most famous classical music instruments. His concert in All India Music Conference (1937) in Calcutta brought shehnai into limelight and was hugely appreciated by music lovers. He monopolized shehnai recital in the post independence era and kept the legacy of classical music alive with his recitals. He can be truly called a pure artist who always believed that music will survive even if the world perishes. He believed in Hindu-Muslim unity and spread the message of brotherhood through his music. He always announced that music has no caste.

Bismillah Khan had the rare honor of playing his shehnai on the eve of India’s independence in the year 1947. He performed at the Red Fort in Delhi and since that year he has always played on 15th August right after the Prime Minister gave his speech. Bismillah Khan has played in many countries and has a huge fan following. He has performed in Afghanistan, USA, Canada, Bangladesh, Europe, Iran, Iraq, West Africa, Japan and Hong Kong. He shared a special bond with his shehnai and called it “Begum” after his wife died. On 21st August 2006, at the age of 90, Bismillah Khan breathed his last after having a cardiac arrest. His shehnai was buried with him in his grave.

pet sound : roomful of teeth

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Roomful of Teeth is a GRAMMY-winning vocal project dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, the band gathers annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, where they’ve studied Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music and Persian classical singing with some of the world’s top performers and teachers. Commissioned composers include Rinde Eckert, Judd Greenstein, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), William Brittelle, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Missy Mazzoli, Michael Harrison, Sam Amidon and Ted Hearne.  (artist website)

They have released two recordings, most recently Render

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Leif Segerstam : conductor, composer

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Most people have heard of “Beethoven’s 5th” but they may not know that he wrote nine symphonies.  Far fewer will know how many symphonies Mozart (41) or Haydn (104) wrote.  But at one point in music history the symphony was the basic genre-form for orchestra.

The symphony prospered in the 18th century and was still a vibrant form throughout the 19th with some of the greatest examples being written by Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms.  But with the breakdown in the tonal language most of the forms which were based on the tonal system also fell by the wayside.  Some composers, Pierre Boulez for example, felt that new forms should be dictated by the music’s structure, which is how serialism began.  For Boulez, to take an old form, like the symphony, which had developed out of the tonal system and to fill it with atonal music was meaningless.  But despite these attempts to write the symphony’s obituary, composers from the 20th and 21st century continued writing symphonies.

You may be wondering what does all this have to do with Leif Segerstam, known primarily as a Finnish conductor.  But he is also a composer.

As a composer, he is known especially for his numerous symphonies, which are 285 as of 2014.  Most of his symphonies are written with the principles of ~20 minute works, that are in one movement, and are performed without conductors. This is partially inspired by Sibelius’7th symphony. Of these, over a hundred have been performed.

He developed a personal approach to aleatory composition through a style called “free pulsation” in which musical events interact flexibly in time, and this composition method is persistent throughout his œuvre, most notably in his “Orchestral Diary Sheets”. This method was first used in his 5th String Quartet, the “Lemming Quartet”

Here’s a clip of No. 253, subtitled Crazyly alone at Christmas, but in the family of universes of sounds.

Honoring Oscar Levant : pianist, wit, and possible genius

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I first heard of Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) when I was probably 12 or 13 and becoming aware of music as a growing obsession.  I had recently discovered George Gershwin, thanks to my sister who had a LP of piano rolls of Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue.  I would hang out outside the door to her bedroom and listen to the music and think it was the greatest thing in the whole world.  It wasn’t long before I found out that there was this crazy pianist named Oscar Levant who had made something of a specialty of Gershwin.

Levant was not only known as a pianist but because of frequent appearances on game shows where he demonstrated his quick wit, he became something of a celebrity in the ’50s and ’60s.  But Levant was a serious musician.  Around 1932, Levant began composing seriously. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and impressed him sufficiently to be offered an assistantship (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified).

To remember Levant, who passed away on this date in 1972, here he is playing Gershwin’s Three Preludes.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji : born 14 August

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Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (born Leon Dudley Sorabji; 14 August 1892 – 15 October 1988) was an English composer, music critic, pianist and writer. He was one of the 20th century’s most prolific piano composers.

As a composer and pianist, Sorabji was largely self-taught, and he distanced himself from the main currents of contemporary musical life early in his career. He developed a highly idiosyncratic musical language, with roots in composers as diverse as Busoni, Debussy and Szymanowski, and he dismissed large portions of the established and contemporary repertoire.

A reluctant performer, Sorabji played a few of his works in public between 1920 and 1936, thereafter “banning” performances of his music until 1976. Since very few of his compositions were published during those years, he remained in public view mainly by writing essays and music criticism, at the centre of which are his books Around Music and Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician. He had a tendency to seclusion, and in the 1950s he moved from London to the village of Corfe Castle, Dorset, where he spent most of the rest of his life quietly.

Sorabji’s music is characterised by frequent use of polyrhythms, complex juxtaposition of tonal and atonal elements, and copious ornamentation. Many of his works contain sections employing strongly contrasting approaches to musical architecture; some of them use baroque forms, while others are athematic. His musical output consists of over 100 compositions, ranging from aphoristic pieces to works spanning several hours. Most are for piano solo or feature an important piano part, but he also composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles, organ and other instruments. Partly because of this, Sorabji has been described as a descendant of a tradition of composer-pianists such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan.