Category: Composers

Mrs. Poynter, Bernstein’s West Side Story, and the First Moments of my Music Maturity

94ff7-west-side-storyGod bless Mrs. Poynter! She was a perky young teacher that I had in ninth grade, and thank goodness she had some amount of artistic leanings.

One day, as part of our assignment on something, she told us we would be watching Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. Now, personally, I feel this is one of the great works of the 20th Century. Growing up, I had the album at home and I had listened to it many times with only the LP album art to clue me in on what the characters looked like.

But Mrs. Poynter changed all that.

The janitor wheeled the TV and VCR into our ninth grade room one afternoon, and the lights were turned out. Everyone was glad we weren’t doing some kind of silly work, even if it was a boring musical. For me however, it was a life-changing experience.

From the first moments of the film, the high whistles and the mysterious percussion bring a sense of mystery. To be honest, we all giggled when the tough guys started ballet dancing, but it was the music that hooked me. Still when I watch or listen to the first numbers before and during “When You’re a Jet” I love the flowing sax and string lines intertwining with larger orchestral melodies. It builds and flows, and carries the performers along like they are in a river.

Then later when an old style march transforms quickly into a tumultuous mambo, Bernstein really gets going. One minute the strings and woodwinds are plodding along in a very honky traditional fashion, then Bernstein somehow devolves into horns blaring the stabbing lines of the Latin number. Everyone yells “Mambo” and it’s off to the races.

But still the defining moment is coming. A moment that makes me realize I may be a little different from my fellow students.

The song “Maria” begins with a very 20th Century and now classic melody. Through the song, kind of like Tony knowing “Something’s Coming” earlier, I was hearing this genius melody (and lyric, “say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying”. Wow, nice Sondheim.) But towards the end, when the entire key changes for the tag (“The most beautiful sound I ever heard…”), then Bernstein writes the notes that forever changed me. “Mari-a.” Ending back on the third of the original key. Gasp.

A chill went up my spine that day. I might have cried, don’t remember. I hope not because that was the year I finally got that bully off my back.

But I DO remember looking around at all the other kids. They were sleeping, or pulling each other’s hair, or staring off into space bored. They were NOT having chills. They were NOT on the verge of tears. Those notes meant nothing to them. Those notes would not stop them in their tracks anytime they heard them the rest of their life.

That’s when I knew I was different. I wasn’t writing songs yet, or even singing (although I was playing trombone in band), but I knew “something was coming”. I was headed for a life that had to do with notes, chords, and orchestration like Bernstein wrote there.

WHY THIS MATTERS:

We all had a teacher, a parent, or someone that inspired us, or helped make a connection to something that drove us more into music. Mrs. Poynter was certainly not the only music influence, or maybe the most important music teacher in my life, but this incident I will always remember.

Do you have an incident like this? If so, share it below.

EC

John Eric Copeland is not a real musicologist, but he does play one on the Internet. For more on his unique twist on Music History and why it matters today, subscribe to this blog or join us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

Dvořák and the Struggle for Success

It’s easy when you’re an artistic person, whether you’re a music composer, author, singer, painter, or anyone creative…sometimes you just feel tired of beating your head against the same wall.

Is it all really worth it? Will anyone ever take note of your hard work?

For the first 20 or so years of his professional career, Antonin Dvořák struggled to find widespread success. He managed to make a living as a musician, but he faced challenges including having an opera spurned as “unperformable”.

But somewhere along the way he caught the ear of Johannes Brahms, who Dvořák himself admired. Through Brahms he found a publisher and began to find a larger audience eventually receiving commissions by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, and becoming the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.

In an article he wrote for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1895, Dvořák had this to say about art and “making it”.

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly that art, as such, does not “pay,” to use an American expression – at least, not in the beginning – and that the art that has to pay its own way is apt to become vitiated and cheap.”

Wow, doesn’t that sound familiar? More than anything, Dvořák understood that the real value of being an artist is in mentoring and educating of younger artists, as Dvořák was mentored by Brahms.

“My own duty as a teacher, I conceive, is not so much to interpret Beethoven, Wagner, or other masters of the past, but to give what encouragement I can to the young musicians of America.”

WHY THIS MATTERS:

Perhaps you can find that mentor that can help you to the next level of your artistic success, or perhaps you can BE that mentor to someone you know who is struggling.

We all need it, especially in an age where the master/apprentice model has seemed to be harder to find.

Have a great week!

EC

John Eric Copeland is not a musicologist, but he does play one on the Internet. For more on his unique twist on Music History and why it matters today, subscribe to this blog or join us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

Debussy vs. Atonality

18995-schoenberg-of-borg
Schoenberg of Borg

Subtitle 1: Resistance is Futile
Subtitle 2: Star Trek vs. The Berg

(It will really help if you have some kind of Trek background here.)

I have a theory about almost anything by Debussy. If you put his music behind the original Star Trek shows it works perfectly as the backdrop music when Kirk is spouting off some soliloquy, or when they are on a strange planet (which is much like the one they were on last week).

As I listen to The Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”, I swear I could see Captain Kirk with some green chick on a planet, where the fake plastic flowers are purple and green. The flute descending and rising with the shimmering strings behind…well it just puts me in the mood to see some bad acting.

See if I’m not right: 

The calm, flowing melodies beautifully paint the picture of an afternoon on a clearing (where alien deer roam perhaps?). Flute gives way to clarinet, as the score gets deeper, and more complex. It would be hard to imagine the composer of this piece moving totally into atonality, and in fact Debussy flirted with and came back from that direction. He was not assimilated by it.

Schoenberg and his drones, Webern and Berg however, were fully seduced by the dark side of atonality and the pure difference of it.

In a similar fashion to how Debussy would have fit so well in the classic, sixties Star Trek score, Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces could be scored behind modern Star Trek’s most feared foe. The horror, the dissonance, the pure mechanical and obtuseness of it fits the evil robot Borg race, as they seek to take from what has been and use what they want for their own devices.

Almost scary as it gets going, with twists and turns chromatically, percussion slamming out of nowhere like a bad acid trip in a haunted house, The Berg come at you from all directions as seems typical with atonal pieces. Shields are not holding! There seems no defense (except to turn it off as one critic in his day stood and demanded.)

I’ve always felt atonal music seemed random, obtuse on purpose, as if the composer was drunk and just wrote whatever notes he fashioned. “Ha, let’s hear this together. That will freak them right out. Resistance is futile, helpless turn of the century earthlings! You will be assimilated to this new music, and like it!”

In the Three Orchestral Pieces third movement, Berg both paid tribute to and mocks Beethoven’s Fifth. You can almost hear Schoenberg, Webern and Berg speaking monotone as one to the previous Viennese School composer. “We take what we want, and will add your musical and technological distinctiveness to our own.”

While you can hear snippets of atonality with Debussy, it’s obvious that melody just won out. Like the malevolent Federation in Star Trek that only seeks to seek out new life and new civilizations in peace, Debussy was willing to explore the unknown. He just made sure he came back to Earth.

But Schoenberg (classical music’s equivalent of the Borg Queen) and his drones were not interested in beauty, peace, and easy harmony. They craved disharmony, all for various reasons probably. And like the Borg, once they got a taste of the power, the complete look of astonishment, and the sheer outrage of those who did not understand what they were doing, they knew they were doing something right.

In the end, they formed a new race of being, a new complete school of music.

And the galaxy of music would never be the same.

Kirk out.

John Eric Copeland loved Star Trek long before music history, but now sees the value in both. KAAAAAAAHN!

You Can Handel It

Think you have it tough? At a scary point in your music career?

George Frederic Handel is of course known for his amazing works like Messiah, Water Music, etc., but do you think it was all gravy?

See if this sounds familiar…

Money trouble. Once one of the top paid musicians for Kings and Queens of England, later in life Handel was facing debtor’s prison since his audiences (and patrons paying the tab) had faded.

Competition. Other goofballs, with obviously less talent were getting all the accolades.

Fickle audiences. Opera was fading from the London scene, and Handel was trying to push his new “oratorio” style, which mixed religious passion plays with opera style production. Churches and ministers were not pleased by this new “outrageous music”.

Health issues. Rheumatism, strokes, and eventually eyesight issues plagued him his last decade.

We current day composers, artists, and musicians live with all these, and so did Handel. In fact, at the very time he was facing debtor’s prison, and in bad health, he was approached to compose the great work Messiah. And even that now-beloved masterpiece was not a hit in England immediately. It took years to win mass audience approval.

He died England’s most beloved composer, and left a hefty inheritance. But like any musician, there were some serious highs and some pretty bad lows.

WHY THIS MATTERS:

Those who make it in art are those who keep working harder than the rest. They believe in themselves, not just in the good times, but the bad also.

When it seems that it’s getting pretty hard to compete in your particular part of the music industry, then maybe it’s time to redefine yourself. Look for new interests, perhaps a new branch of study, a new instrument, or a new job.

It’s a great big music world out there, and maybe you’ve been hiding in your hole too long, or stuck in a rut. Time to pick yourself up and attack again in a new way.

Have a great week!

EC

Eric Copeland is not a musicologist (yet), but does play one on the Internet. For more on his unique twist on Music History and why it matters today, check out http://www.MusicHistoryMatters.com

The Power of a Partner: Gilbert & Sullivan

“It takes two to tango.” – Pearl Bailey.

Sometimes we creative folk know we have something to offer, and we may even have modest success. But often times it takes someone else that can add quality and a special uniqueness, to make something extraordinary.

Such was the case with the famous team of librettist (lyricist) W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, known for their comic operas such as The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, and H.M. S. Pinafore.

But before they met, they each experienced initial success, Gilbert as a playwright, and Sullivan as a promising young British composer. But together, they made masterpieces that still stand and are performed today.

Now there have been many great librettist/composer tandems through time from Bellini and Romani from the early 19th century, to Rodgers and Hammerstein of the 20th century. But Gilbert and Sullivan so perfectly and successfully paired to create hit after hit for the Savoy Theatre.

Not that the team was without conflict. Sullivan tired of the same “topsy turvy” comic operas that Gilbert wrote, longing to write more serious opera. They even quit speaking a few times before being talked into working together again.

But each had a crucial element that made the other better, and neither had as much success with any other partner or by themselves.

WHY THIS MATTERS:

If you are not having the success you are looking for, perhaps what you need is a partner? Someone to be the yin to your yang. Someone to fill in the spots where you are weak. And it can be as easy as asking someone, or Googling the kind of person you need (it’s worth a Google!).

You probably know someone who you would work well with, or would be a perfect partner. Get in touch!

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Have a great week!
EC
Eric Copeland is not a real musicologist but he plays one on the Internet. He’s actually a producer, composer, and keyboardist. Find out more at http://www.EricCopelandMusic.com

Tchaikovsky Bites His Fingernails

Does this man look worried to you?
Does this man look worried to you?

It’s hard to imagine famed composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky fretting, chewing his fingernails and wondering what people would think about his work. It’s an especially silly thought now that we know his classic works such as the 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake, and much, much more of course.

But this is exactly what happened when he was premiering his opera Eugene Onegin in 1879.

He was quite worried about what several of his contemporaries would think about the work. At the time, the leading Russian musicians were Anton Rubenstein, the founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, and his brother Nikolai, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory.

As it turns out, one loved it and one hated it. Of course history would bear out the opera’s popularity, but at the time, Tchaikovsky must have felt conflicted that one of them did not approve.

How often do we worry about what people will think of our art? What will they think of our songs, our paintings, or our little blogs?

Now we look back on Tchaikovsky’s output and place in music history and it seems silly he would worry about two men whose works are much lesser known.

WHY THIS MATTERS:

The fact is we all fret and lay awake wondering what people will think. We wonder if our latest work, or career move will be the one that makes us what we were intended to be.

There’s one sure way to ensure your work’s final effectiveness and popularity: Get to work making it and quit biting your fingernails!

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” – J.S. Bach

Have a great week!
EC
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Eric Copeland is a producer, composer, and worries about his place in history too. Do you worry about what people think of your art? Make sure to comment by joining the Blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Smoke Signal. http://www.MusicHistoryMatters.org

Why You Are Like Bach, Mozart, or Schoenberg

I think the really amazing thing about studying music history for me has been the way it has shown the similarities between the masters, and myself and other artists I work with daily. While most musicologists focus on musical forms, genres, and theoretical tendencies, what interests me is how I am like Mozart, or Bach, or Miles.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not compare myself to them technically or musically. They would all laugh at my MIDI accomplishments and “producer” title. Bach would shake his head, Miles would turn his back, and Mozart would just giggle I imagine.
But comparing how they lived and worked, how they loved and dealt with daily life, that is where we can see who we are. Because we, as current artisans, are just reflections of those before us. They dealt with fame, work, and love (or the lack of them) just as we must.

So whom do you resemble? Let’s use a short list here and see if you fit in one of these three types:

1. Maybe you’re Bach.

Johann Sebastian Bach was the equivalent of today’s modern church music director. If you have a steady music gig at a church or school, then you and Bach have lived similar lives.

Bach served as “Cantor” or music leader of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany from 1723 until his death in 1750. He was also musical director at the principal churches in town.

As you may know, his output was voluminous, but you would expect him to have written a lot when he had to have music ready for the week’s services for 27 years! Plus he had similar jobs back to 1708. Dude had a resume!

You may work on a lot of songs too every week, getting things ready for Sunday services or for classes. It may seem overwhelming, and it may seem somewhat under-appreciated.

But so was Bach. Although he was highly respected in Europe as an organist during his lifetime, he really didn’t become infamous as “Bach, the composer that defines the Baroque period we all know and love” until a revival of his music in the 19th century.

So take heart, Bach-ites. Maybe somewhere in 2123 is when your genius will be discovered and revered for all time.

(In the meantime, enjoy some Bach and get back to your planning…)

2. Maybe you’re Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was simply the Michael Jordan of music history. I mean yes, you have Bach, and Beethoven, and many that are masters without doubt. But Mozart was the natural. The prodigy that would never be denied even as a child or on his deathbed. His works are varied, and original, and striking.

But despite the unique and powerful works, his financial life and personal life were kinda iffy. Like many musicians, especially the really crazy gifted ones, he put way more emphasis on creating than he did a steady gig. Especially since that meant having to “be” what princes or other possible benefactors wanted from him. He taught piano to rich ladies, and wrote operas and other things on demand for folks, but truly just wanted to write songs to his own liking, not what others wanted.

You may fall into this kind of thinking sometimes. I know I do. My whole creative life has been about doing things my way. I skipped piano lessons, scoffed at a music degree, and never really embraced traditional music gigs or jobs. Instead I built a music business I could totally do my way.

But at what cost!

This kind of attitude, a decision that you want to live as a creative musician doing art your way has it downsides. And one downside is that money can slow to a trickle fast. It did for Mozart. He liked to live with his wife in a big fancy house with servants and buy pianos, but the truth was he went into debt doing it and was still trying to get out of debt at the time of his death.

Being like Mozart is a two-sided coin. You have a talent for music, but yet demand music fit into life the way you feel it should rather than more traditional means.

(Hide your bills, and enjoy some Mozart, and then write something amazing whether it sells or not…)

3. Maybe you’re Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg probably isn’t as known to you, but he is a very important figure in the history of music, not that you’d probably care for his music. Well, maybe you’d feel comfortable with his early music, which just echoed and continued the tradition of Wagner and Brahms.

But Schoenberg developed the “twelve-tone” technique, which kind of put western music on its ear. The random sounding music can kind of sound a little like a horror movie score on acid. It purposely went away from the harmonics and tonality of the previous two centuries. A whole way of thinking (the Second Viennese School) with other composers following Schoenberg’s evolution came next, and the 20th century started out with a crash. At least that’s kind of what it sounded like.

How could this relate to you? I hear folks all the time declaring how music, or any genre, is stale and the same old, same old. So, they break away from what everyone else is doing, and try something radically different, often breaking the established rules of musical taste of the time. At first people may not like it, but sometimes new music has to cause a revolt before it becomes famous. (See Disco.)

Some of his early concerts of the new atonal stuff actually caused fights in the audience. Schoenberg himself tried to physically escort troublemakers out of the concert hall.

Now hopefully you won’t have to do this, but you may come up against criticism or haters when you are trying to do something different.

(Tune them out and listen to some Schoenberg. Or send it to them for torture…)

WHY THIS MATTERS:

Each of us can read the history of the lives of composer and find traits that reflect us today. That’s the beauty, and real value of studying music history. We learn from the masters, who were just real, frail, vulnerable people, like you.

Have a great week!

EC
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Eric Copeland is a producer, composer, and paid artist nurturer. Whether he’s right or not, he firmly believes the knowledge of music history can help musicians and artsy types in the present. Be part of the fun by joining the Blog, Twitter, Facebook, or…Telegram.

How Chopin Kicked My Butt

For forty-seven years I have scoffed. I have rolled my eyes and gone about my merry way. I have laughed directly in the face of my enemy and then demonstrated my own superiority.

But, alas, I am a fool.

Today, it happened. Something that’s been happening to musicians for hundreds of years.

I stumbled through Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor (Op. 28, No. 4), just trying to feel my way through it as I am not a reader (as we’ll get into). And about halfway through the second section, it hit me. This is beautiful, and I am playing what a master composer wrote, and…I am affected.

I am affected by playing some else’s music. Someone who wrote this 250 years ago!

To be quite honest I have been a complete skeptic of traditional music. For 35 years I have walked my own path. I snootily stuck my nose up at the music establishment and announced I did NOT need it. I built my own music world. Like my own music version of the Matrix. My own chords, my own songs, my own arrangements, my own ideas, my own art.

I had no need for the tragedy of what felt was the ‘man’ trying to tell me how to do music. God had given me this talent and I owed no one but Him my musical gifts.

I eschewed music training, music snobs, and traditional music methods. A college music degree? Pshaw!

I shook off the old-fashioned, antiquated ideas of my piano teacher mother and grandmother and went my own direction, incorporating jazz, pop, and rock into my own style. I have written hundreds of songs, with hundreds recorded and published by clients and others.

All of this done without nary a lesson on how to do it.

I never understood WHY I needed to learn any of that old crap they were selling me at school, church, or at home about why Chopin’s mastery (or Mozart, or Beethoven, or anyone else for that matter) made a shred of difference to the art I wanted to make.

But today, in probably culmination of the past few years of forced study (forced by me as an experiment), I believe I am finally starting to get it.

For years Chopin stared me right in the face – literally. My mom had a bust of Chopin on our piano where I wrote songs and learned to play (kind of in that order). My wife actually recently found a similar Chopin bust and he is here in my studio…staring at me (with those sad eyes.)

Maybe having him as the predominant musical figure in my youth is why, as I narrow my chosen field of music history study down to the 1800s, I have an interest in his life and works. Maybe it’s because I am a keyboardist and he almost exclusively focused on piano pieces. We even share some facial features.

But today, playing (and I use that term loosely, remember I turned my nose up at piano lessons) this piece by Chopin moved me AS I played it. Not as I listened, which has happened before, but while I was trying to recreate it.

Now some of you students and master pianists (and yes, even you Mom) are shrugging, thinking, “Duh. Happens to me all the time.”

In studying music history lately at a local college, and as a music producer at studios, I see an increasing number of new music school students: those studying to be part of the music industry. These folks are more like I was at their age. They want to do music, but not all that stupid theory stuff and recital nonsense.

But these students (who often must take music history, or at least choose it as an elective to get their degree) NEED to understand why Chopin matters in the life they are wanting to lead. I’m finally getting it. But I wish someone would have made me see a parallel from composers as far as Palestrina or even farther back in the 500s and 600s. Maybe that would have made me realize the world of music as a more cyclical, emotional landscape, and not just some playground for me to trample on with my ignorance.

So, yeah, Chopin kicked my butt today. And I’m a better man for it.

I just wish he’d quit glaring at me…gloating.

EC

Eric Copeland is a music producer in Nashville, and also a music student at Middle Tennessee State University.  To get more articles like this one, make sure and sign up for his blog at http://musichistorymatters.wordpress.com