Radiolab Explores Tempo in Beethoven's Music

WNYC's Radiolab is one of my favorite programs. It's hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who explore the world around us. In a recent podcast, they discuss the metronome markings in Ludwig van Beethoven's music, which have been quite controversial. They focus on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony since it is so well known. Some performers feel that his markings are too fast, while others take him at his word. The faster you go the more exciting it is. Radiolab wanted to explore how fast is too fast. Here is a quartet from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at 160 beats per minute. Beethoven's marking is at 108, so this is a little silly, but also kind of fun. 

One thing that is left out of the discussion is performance practice and how that has changed over time. Our understanding of the "correct" tempos have come through the filter of the Romantic Era, where bigger is better and therefore slower (and schmaltzier) is often the norm. Early 20th century recordings bear that out, but as we come to realize that classical orchestras were not as large, and that the pieces were performed in smaller halls, performances have become faster. Conductors who are part of the historically informed performance movement, like John Eliot Gardiner, tend to take Beethoven's symphonies as marked; they seem perfectly reasonable and – in my opinion – better served. You can hear the whole "Speedy Beet" episode (18 minutes) at Radiolab's website.

Great Advice from Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato is one of my favorite singers, and now I see that she is thoughtful and funny and wise. This is from the end of a master class at Julliard where she took time to answer questions from the audience. The video is more than 30 minutes, but if you are interested in pursuing life as a performer (or even if you want to be a successful in a challenging career of any kind) it's well worth watching. She offers excellent advice on how to overcome that nagging inner voice we all have and shares some of her personal experiences.

What Child Is This

It's been a while since I've posted a video in my public domain project. This one has double public domain credits. The original tune is a traditional English 16th-century melody called "Greensleeves." It was popular enough in Elizabethan England to be referenced in multiple Shakespeare plays. In 1865 William Dix wrote the poem that we use for the lyrics of the popular carol, "What Child Is This."

This is one of my favorite carols. The melody is what captures me -- it feels old and pagan -- perfect for a long, dark winter night.

Do Orchestras Need a Conductor? Yes!

NPR's Deceptive Cadence recently posted an article about an orchestra's need for a conductor. Does an orchestra really need a conductor? A recent study by Yiannis Aloimonos, of the University of Maryland, came to the same conclusion as every orchestra in the world. The answer is yes; and the more experienced the conductor, the better.

When I saw the headline for this article, my first thought was, "Of course an orchestra needs a conductor, this is self evident. We don't need a study to show us that the sky is blue." This is obvious to musicians, but apparently it is not obvious to non-musicians. Now we have empirical proof that the conductor is doing much more than just waving his or her arms. Go read the article to see how they conducted the study.

Adventures in Teaching: Halloween

Libby Larsen, composer

This year for Halloween I decided that since I was teaching all afternoon, and students would likely come to lessons in their costumes, I would dress up, too. I hemmed and hawed about what to be, but anything too elaborate like a character from an opera seemed too difficult to maintain while teaching. I settled on composer Libby Larsen because I love her music and I look a bit like her if I change the part in my hair.

I thought Larsen would be a great choice, since most young musicians think of composers as old (or dead) European men like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. She certainly goes against that type as a living American woman. Larsen has an excellent section for kids on her website. She includes a letter to students, an interview, and a section on composing music. From the interview:

What advice would you give to a person who wants to compose for a living?

Listen to all kinds of music, as much as you can get your hands on. Make friends with creative and artistic people. Learn to read and notate music very, very well. Listen some more. Work at your music every day. Study the music of other composers. Write everything down. Talk to musicians and music teachers as much as you can. Perform: sing, play instruments, make up your own instruments, and of course, dance!

Read the rest at Libby Larsen's For Kids page.