Brubeck, "Blue Rondo à la Turk" (1959)

In 1958, the jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was touring the Middle East when he heard a Turkish folk tune that repeated a rhythmic pattern divided into beats of 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 9. Brubeck later converted that Turkish music into a jazz tune titled "Blue Rondo à la Turk," a piece that serves as a great example of what can be done with odd meter in jazz. The Dave Brubeck Quartet first recorded the piece in 1959 for their ground-breaking album Time Out.

The rhythm of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" is organized into groups of nine beats, but it is the subdivision of the nine beats that makes the piece so fascinating. At the beginning of the tune, the nine beats are subdivided as
2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This subdivision is then repeated three times before switching to a subdivision of 3 + 3 + 3, which is only played once before switching back to 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This pattern repeats itself several times before leading into an extended section of improvisation without the Turkish rhythms, which do make a reappearance at the end to wrap things up.

Whew! I wish you the best of luck at keeping up with what happens rhythmically, and I hope I have described it clearly and accurately.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Bach, Organ Fugue in C minor, BWV 546 (c. 1717)

Another terrific graphical score based on Bach's music from Stephen Malinowski and his Music Animation Machine.

Amy Beach: The Only Woman on Boston's Hatch Shell

Historians know the story well — the opportunities of an intelligent, talented woman are restricted by a culture that sees women only as wives and mothers. The musical careers of Nannerl Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn were never allowed to develop, although both may have been as talented as their famous brothers. Alma Schindler ended her possible career as a composer the day her husband Gustav told her the Mahler family could only contain one composer.

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Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a talented musician who confronted the same cultural restrictions as many women who came before her. Amy, however, was unwilling to accept the barriers imposed by the man’s world of composing and performing music, and her determination to overcome cultural restrictions led her to become one of the greatest and most significant musicians in American history.

Born Amy Cheney, she was a child prodigy whose parents opted not to enroll her in a music conservatory. Instead, she studied with private teachers and debuted as a concert pianist to great acclaim when she was only sixteen. By any standard Amy would have been headed for a successful career as a concert pianist — if she had been a man.

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When she was eighteen she married Henry Beach, a Boston surgeon who was twenty-four years older. Dr. Beach told Amy to abandon her public performances, and at first she obeyed his wishes. Her creative spirit, however, could not be crushed, and she taught herself musical composition and orchestration. If her husband would not allow her to perform in public, she would at least be able to compose at home. In the process, she became a charter member of the first generation of American composers.

Amy was a product of the Romantic era’s desire to create music with a national sound. She therefore looked to her Irish roots for thematic material and created a sound that was uniquely Irish-American. In 1896, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played her
Symphony in E minor (the "Gaelic" Symphony) she became the first American woman to compose music performed by a major orchestra. The symphony, characterized by its Irish-American themes, placed Amy in the first rank of American composers.

After her husband died in 1910, she returned to performing in public and toured Europe, playing her own compositions. In her later years she continued to compose and worked hard to promote the careers of young composers. She died of heart disease at the age of seventy-seven.

On July 9, 2000, Amy's name was added to the granite wall on Boston’s famous Hatch Shell, joining eighty-six other great composers. She was the only woman listed on the wall with such composers as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

Amy Beach, Theme and Variations for Flute and Strings

Evelyn Glennie: Teaching the World to Listen

"My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That is my only real aim in life."

– Dame Evelyn Glennie


According to Evelyn Glennie's biographical information on her Facebook page, she is "the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist." What her Facebook bio does not mention is that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. She claims to hear with parts of her body other than her ears and performs barefoot to help feel the music. In a TED talk from 2003, Glennie not only provided a great musical performance (beginning at 27:15), she also offered a new and more mindful way of listening to music. As a bonus to the TED talk, I have embedded a video of Glennie performing Piazzola's Libertango.

Evelyn Glennin, TED Talk, February 2003


Astor Piazzola, Libertango, perfromed by Evelyn Glennie

Separating the Composer from the Music

I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.

And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran away from his debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Beethoven, Berlioz, or Saint-Saëns in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any, music to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.

Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducing the New York Philharmonic)


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Daniel Barenboim conducting Waltraud Meier at Scala Milan)

Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn: Music as a Profession and an Ornament

Some people are forever linked in history to their siblings.

In most cases, we bother to learn little or nothing about a historic person’s siblings. George Washington had a brother Lawrence who played a significant role in shaping his life. Lawrence, however, generally, gets lost in the history books. I doubt, however, that few people will ever read about Vincent van Gogh without also reading about his brother Theo. The same is true for Wilbur and Orville Wright, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kennedy and his brother Bobby. It’s probably not even possible to learn about one of the Marx Brothers without learning about the other four.

Some siblings are even linked in death. Theo van Gogh died six months after Vincent and is buried next to him at Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Bobby Kennedy died less than five years after his brother and is buried close to him at Arlington cemetery.

And any list of siblings connected by history would be incomplete without including Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Every classical music lover knows about Felix Mendelssohn. More than 160 years after his death his music remains a standard component of the classical repertoire. When hearing Mendelssohn's music we can’t help but want to know something about the man who composed it, and when we examine his life we inevitably learn about Fanny, the sister who shared his talents but not his opportunities.

Fanny was four years older than Felix, born in 1805 as the first child of well-to-do Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany. Much was expected of children born into the Mendelssohn family. Fanny’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a respected philosopher. Her father Abraham was a well-to-do banker, and her mother Lea was a highly educated taskmaster, a woman determined to give her children the best education possible.

The Mendelssohns were an intellectual and ambitious family, unwilling to let anything hold them back. In 1811 they moved to Berlin, a city with more opportunities than provincial Hamburg. By the early 1820s the entire family had converted to Lutheranism and changed their name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Abraham and Lea did not want the prejudice and discrimination against Jews affecting their children.

When Fanny was born her mother proclaimed she had “Bach-fugue fingers” and begin giving her piano lessons at age six. After the family moved to Berlin, Fanny took lessons with a master pianist named Ludwig Berger. It was clear to anyone who met Fanny that she was a prodigy.

Felix also began taking piano lessons at age six. Like Fanny, he was a musical prodigy and also studied with Ludwig Berger. At age ten he learned to write counterpoint from Carl Zelter, as did his sister. Both Fanny and Felix began composing when they were children and were both more advanced than Mozart at a comparable age.

Everything changed for Fanny when she turned fifteen. Her parents told her she must abandon music and prepare for marriage and motherhood. Her father said, “Music will perhaps become Felix’s profession. For you it can and must be only an ornament.” The Mendelssohns were a proper family, not about to challenge social mores regarding the role of woman.

Felix gained great fame and adulation as a composer, conductor, and pianist. His works were performed by the finest orchestras in Europe.
Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed when he was only seventeen, received rave reviews after its first performance. He was twenty when the Hebrides Overture played to rapturous applause.

He began conducting when he was nineteen and quickly gained a reputation as a virtuosic and innovative leader of orchestras and choirs. He was the first to use a baton and the first to create a repertoire of masterworks from the past. At age twenty he conducted Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion, a piece that had not been heard since Bach’s death seventy-nine years early. The performance resurrected an almost forgotten composer and created a mania for all things Bach. The great composer Hector Berlioz said, “There is but one God — Bach — and Mendelssohn is his prophet.”

At age twenty-six Felix became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the most prestigious conducting jobs of the time. He soon turned the Gewandhuas into the best orchestra in the world. When he was thirty-four he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. He was, quite simply, one of the most successful and well-known musicians of his time.

Fanny, on the other hand, had been denied a career in music by her parents, as well as the cult of domesticity that limited women's opportunities in European society. The fact that she was as talented as her brother made no difference. Instead of setting the musical world on fire, Fanny read about her brother's success in the newspapers. Felix traveled throughout Europe while she stayed home. Felix conducted great orchestras while she played in amateur quartets. Felix became an international superstar. She remained unknown to the general public.

At age twenty Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel. The day after her wedding Wilhelm handed her a piece of manuscript paper and asked her to return to music and begin composing again. With the support of her husband, Fanny resumed her life in music, but only as an amateur. After several miscarriages she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel in honor of her favorite composers. When she wasn't taking care of her son, she hosted musical salons and organized a small chorus. She also composed songs and wrote short pieces for piano. She would compose almost 500 pieces of music, and seven collections of songs were eventually published under her name.

Fanny nevertheless remained unknown to the public during her lifetime. European culture would simply not accept music composed by a woman. Felix secretly published several of her songs under his own name, songs that gained wide exposure and popular approval. On one of Felix’s many visits to England he met Queen Victoria who raved about the song “Italien.” Felix created a slight controversy when he confessed that his sister had written the song.

On May 14, 1847, Fanny was playing the piano with a chamber group when her hands went numb. The next day she died of a stroke. She was forty-two years old.

Felix, distraught over the loss of his sister, was too emotionally upset even to attend her funeral. Over the next few months his health deteriorated and less than six months after his sister died he was killed by a stroke. He was thirty-eight.

Today, in a graveyard outside Berlin, Fanny and Felix are buried next to each other. Felix was a composer for the ages, gaining the fame that history grants to few artists. His story, however, can never be told without also telling the story of his sister Fanny, a woman of prodigious talent who was born at the wrong time in history.

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Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn Burial Site

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Larghetto from Song Without Words, Op. 8, No.3, Elzbieta Sternlicht, pianist


Felix Mendelssohn, Fantasy in F#, "Scottish Sonata," Op.28, Murray Perahia, pianist

Strauss, Don Quixote, Finale (1898)

Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.

Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Brahms and Tchaikovsky: A Lesson for All of Us

Two icons of classical music were born on May 7 — Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

In addition to sharing a birthdate, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a traditionalist approach to composing music that had their contemporaries placing them on the same side during the
Romantic “wars” of the late 1800s. They were both viewed by their defenders as standing in opposition to the "art of the future" coming from Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky were also united by history in offering a lesson in how to separate "the person" from "the work." Although Brahms and Tchaikovsky had much in common as composers and liked each other personally, neither one liked the music of the other.

Tchaikovsky, especially, seemed to detest the music that Brahms composed.

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.... Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.” (1866)

“Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.'" (1878)

Brahms' view of Tchaikovsky’s music was not as vitriolic, but was nevertheless critical. Brahms disliked Tchaikovsky’s
Orchestral Suite No. 1, except the first movement. History also provides a story stemming from Brahms’ attendance of a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that, if true, provides evidence of Brahms’ indifference to Tchaikovsky’s music. According to legend, Brahms slept through the entire rehearsal. Legend or not (it may have been nothing more than a symptom of Brahms’ sleep apnea), it is true that Brahms later told Tchaikovsky he did not like the symphony.

In spite of these differences both men seemed to enjoy the company of the other.

They met only twice. The first time was in January 1888 when Tchaikovsky was on a tour of western Europe and attended a rehearsal of Brahms’
Piano Trio No. 3 in Leipzig. Tchaikovsky expected to meet a “conceited” celebrity, a man who was certain to behave with pomposity and arrogance. Instead, Brahms treated Tchaikovsky with warmth and kindness. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for Brahms, admiration that may have been enhanced by the alcohol they shared at a party after the rehearsal.

“I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories."

They met again the following year in Hamburg when Tchaikovsky toured western Europe a second time. After a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s
Fifth Symphony, the same rehearsal that may have put Brahms to sleep, the two men shared a meal. As they sat together, Brahms provided harsh criticism of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. In turn, Tchaikovsky confessed his aversion to Brahms’ compositional style. In spite of the mutually disparaging remarks, the two men seemed to have enjoyed each other’s company and parted as friends. Tchaikovsky even invited Brahms to visit him in Russia, a trip Brahms was never able to make.

The same lesson can be found in looking at the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two men who were hostile political opponents in the early years of United States history. Twice they ran against each other for president in bitterly contested elections, with Adams winning in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. After Jefferson’s presidency ended, however, the two began a written correspondence in which they demonstrated a genuine admiration for each other in spite of their political and philosophical differences.

As a U.S. history teacher, I often used the Adams-Jefferson story to demonstrate how political and philosophical differences do not require us to demonize our opponents. It is possible, as I liked to tell students, not to sanction the product of someone’s public work and yet still enjoy their company socially — to like them as a person. I suppose the opposite is also true. We might approve of someone’s public work but not like them as a person.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be used to teach the same lesson.

Adams and Jefferson both died on the same day — July 4, 1826. Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both born on the same date — May 7. The stories of both friendships can by used as lessons in how human beings might live together, and even like each other, in spite of their differences.

Brahms, Symphony No. 1, Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker


Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Wiener Philharmonkier


Elgar, Enigma Variations, No. 9, "Nimrod" (1899)

“Nimrod,” an Old Testament hunter, was Edward Elgar's nickname for his publisher and closest friend, Augustus Jaeger. Elgar appreciated Jaeger for always encouraging him as an artist and wrote the following piece to represent a summer evening that he spent listening to Jaeger talk about Beethoven’s adagios. The Nimrod Variation is the most famous of Elgar's fourteen “Enigma" variations" and has become a standard piece of music for solemn ceremonies and other dignified occasions.

Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a Utopian Vision of the Future

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most influential pieces of music ever composed, and the “Ode to Joy” of the last movement is certainly one of the most recognizable melodies in music history. A complete deconstruction of the symphony would require more than I can provide in a single posting on this site. In any case, I would like to say a few words about the power of the "Ode to Joy,"

First, let me provide a little information about symphonies.

When you listen to a Classical era symphony — a symphony composed between the mid-1700s and the 1820s — you are expecting to hear instrumental music composed for an orchestra. You are also expecting to hear music that takes you through a variety of "emotions" developed in four movements. If you are new to classical music, I would ask you to think of a Classical era symphony as a “story” told in four “chapters.”

The first movement (or chapter) is normally the most challenging of the four, and when the movement is finished you might want to turn to someone and say, “Wasn’t that interesting?” The second movement is generally slower and more peaceful than the first, which might prompt you to ask, “Is it time to wake up yet?” The third movement is a faster movement in triple time, and you might want to ask, “Do you want to dance?” The last movement is generally fast and upbeat, designed to leave you wanting more. If the composer ends the symphony on the right note (no pun intended), you should be saying, “Wasn’t that fun?”

In short, think of a Classical era symphony in these terms:
  • The first movement challenges the intellect.
  • The second movement provides relaxation and time for reflection.
  • The third movement is dance-like and "physical."
  • The fourth movement provides pleasure.
Although Beethoven's Ninth has as many interpretations as it has members in its audience, let me give you one interpretation to get you started. To understand the Ninth, think of it as an epic story of human suffering that ends with a utopian vision of the future. Remember, it's a symphony, and the story is traditionally told in four movements.
  • First Movement: This movement can be heard as an exploration of the suffering and turmoil that humans must endure. The movement moves back and forth between minor and major tonalities. If you think of a minor tonality as “darkness” and a major tonality as “light,” you should begin to hear the movement as a metaphor for the contradictions and uncertainties of our lives. The movement ends with a statement of darkness and terror.
  • Second Movement: Instead of the slow, quiet music that we are expecting in a second movement, Beethoven gives us a violent introduction that is followed by music played in a fast triple time beat. Although the movement may make us want to get up and start dancing, we should notice that the music is often in a minor key, and we just might be dancing with death. (Serious guy, this Beethoven!) Fortunately, the movement ends in a major key, giving as a glimmer of hope before we move to the third movement.
  • Third Movement: In this movement we finally get the slow and quiet music we had wanted to hear after the first movement. The movement is long and achingly beautiful. We might even sense a little peace of mind in the third movement. Beethoven might be telling us that even though the world is full of darkness, terror, and uncertainty, humanity will endure and prevail.
  • Fourth Movement: This is a long and complicated movement that begins with a terrifying chord of darkness and despair. The frightening chord that opens the movement then leads to a “conversation” between different parts of the orchestra providing quotes from the first three movements. Then comes the “Ode to Joy,” and we should immediately realize that the symphony had been moving toward this melody all along. Beethoven ends the instrumental introduction of the "Ode to Joy" with vocal soloists and a full choir singing the melody. (Before Beethoven's Ninth, symphonies had been defined as music composed for an orchestra — no voices.) The words sung in the fourth movement come from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “Ode to Joy.” All told, the poem — and Beethoven's use of it in the Ninth Symphony — describe a utopian view of the future, a world built upon brotherhood, peace, and joy. If you are not inspired to try to make this a better world after listening to this final movement, you're not really listening.
The elegant tune that Beethoven gave us for the “Ode to Joy” has become one of humanity's most enduring and recognizable melodies. Today, the “Ode to Joy has become the European Anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and we would be hard pressed to find a better anthem than the "Ode to Joy" to inspire the cooperation of European nations.

I spent time at the beginning of this blog describing the basic elements of a Classical era symphony so that the power of the "Ode to Joy" can be understood in context. On its own, the "Ode to Joy" is a beautiful melody that will remain in your memory long after you first hear it. In the context of a symphony that explores issues of human suffering, uncertainty, and terror, the melody has tremendous power to lift your spirit and elevate your soul.



Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”(1785)
O friends, no more these sounds?
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s beast.
Just and junjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God?

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, abobe the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must he dwell.

Flash Mob – Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D Minor