Monday, March 30, 2009

Straussian Weather

We've mentioned Strauss' Thunder and Lightnight Polka before, but here's some more information about Johann Strauss, Jr, "The Waltz King," and his weather-related composition.

"In the 19th century, Viennese music (dance) was dominated by Johann Strauss Sr. and his three sons Johann Jr., Josef and Eduard. Johann Strauss Jr. in all composed over 170 waltzes" [1]of which the most famous today is the "Blue Danube," written in 1867. Thunder and Lightning was published the following year, in 1868.

"Johann Strauss, Jr. (center) was born October 25, 1825 the first of five children. A number of great composers encountered parental opposition when they decided to undertake a musical career, but none met more than Johann Jr. His father, Johann Sr., had decided that one musician in the family was enough and went to great lengths to keep his sons from following in his footsteps. Ironically, all three, Johann Jr., Josef (1827-1870) and Eduard (1835_1916) achieved success as musicians.

"It was his mother, Anna, who encouraged Johann's ambition, who bought him his first violin and saw to it that he received musical instruction. Little Johann secretly studied the violin, making his first attempt at writing a waltz at 6 years of age.

"From 1841 on, Johann Strauss Jr. was a student of the Polytechnic school. He was not very interested in accounting and was expelled for "misbehavior" two years after he joined the school. No one could help him not even a private teacher. Johann skipped the private lessons and spent all his time studying music. He still took violin
lessons from his mother, then he got a permit from the police that allowed him
to play with an orchestra of 12-15 people in public houses." [1]

"Possibly the noisiest of Strauss' dance pieces, Unter Donner und Blitz [Thunder
and Lightning] evokes the sound of thunder and lightning through incessant
timpani rolls and cymbal crashes. In the first half of section A, a loud timpani
roll occurs every four measures, while the cymbals crash on each beat of the
detached descending melody of the second half. Drum answers cymbal in the
arching woodwind tune that begins section B, moving the accent to the second
beat of the measure. A note-for-note return of section A completes the
traditional ternary form, and a rambunctious coda creates a thunderous close.
The only peculiar aspect of Unter Donner und Blitz is the percussive,
eight-measure bridge between the two parts of section A, and the absence of any
return to the first part of section A. Clearly, Strauss sought to amuse as much
as compose a successful piece of music. ~ All Music Guide " [2]


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rock Around the Clock

On the program this Spring is "Rock Around the Clock" by Max Freeman and Jimmy DeKnight, arranged for handbells by Carol Lynn Mizell. While perhaps not the first recording of its kind, Rock Around the Clock is considered the song that started the Rock and Roll era.

The song was written in 1952 for Bill Haley and the Comets. Haley knew he had a hit song for a new sound, but convincing the producers at his label, Essex Records, proved difficult. Not until Haley switched to Decca Records in 1954 was he able to record it, as the B-side to the "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)."

The song was widely recognized until it was heard with the opening credits to the 1955 movie "Blackboard Jungle." It is reported that producers were looking to choose music that was popular with kids. The movie's star actor, Glenn Ford, pulled the album from his then-10-year-old son's collection, and it was chosen for the film. The song's popularity soared, becoming the #1 song in America for eight straight weeks.

Haley would re-record the song many times, as did many other artists, but none have ever been as popular as the original, legendary recording. The song re-appeared on the charts in 1974 when it was used as the opening song for the first season of the television show "Happy Days."

The arrangement for handbells by Mizell incorporates an unusual handbell technique, designed to mimic a trombone "slide." Trombones can easily play a note and slowly move to another note, but each handbell have has a distinct note. The effect is achieved by playing both the first note and the second note at the same time, but changing the direction of the bell so that the audience hears the first note predominately at first, then slowly shifts so that the second note is heard louder than the first. In fact both bells are ringing the entire time. What's most disconcerting to the ringer is that you don't hear the effect if you're too close; only a listenter from a distance will hear the dominant note stand out.

Bill Haley once said "No matter how bad a show might be going some night, I know that song will pull us through. It's my little piece of gold." We hope so, too.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


On the program this Spring is a great new arrangement from famed handbell composer Kevin McChesney: Enya's "Orinoco Flow," more commonly known by it's refrain of "Sail Away." The song reached #1 in the UK in 1988, and was popular throughout the 1990's.

Enya is Ireland's best-selling solo artist; she would be Ireland's top music export were it not for U2. Bono and Enya surely represent some of the the largest musical empires per-letter, along with Elvis and Madonna.
Enya's distinctive sound is performed almost exclusively by herself, layering multiple recordings as many as 80 times to create the final product. She also utilizes multiple languages, including Irish, Welsh, Latin, Japanese, and both High and Common Elven (created by J.R.R. Tolkien, recorded for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy).

Orinoco flow, however, is entirely in English. You can read the lyrics, with its catalog of rivers from around the world, as well as references to music industry executives. The title probably has a dual meaning, referring to the Orinoco river in South America, and the Orinoco Studio where it was recorded.

Enya's layered style is adapted to handbells by Kevin McChesney, who has arranged a wide variety of modern popular songs for handbells, as well as many original compositions and hymns. Kevin's arrangement of "Sing We Now of Christmas" is on our "Christmas in the City" CD.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Olympic Fanfare

All of Chicago is talking about the Olympics coming in 2016. At this time, Chicago is just a contender; the decision will be made on October 2, 2009.
But that hasn't stopped our enthusiasm about the Games, so this Spring we'll be playing "Olympic Fanfare" by Leo Arnaud, transcribed for handbells by Robert C. Currier.

Americans all consider this piece to be synonymous with the Olympics Games. The timpani introduction, the brass section proudly stating the theme, the middle bridge section that reminds us of atheletes moving faster than we could previously imagine. Of course, like all iconic Americana, we tend to embellish the story about the song, adding details that should be true, even if they're not.

First, the Olympic Fanfare is not the Olympic Anthem. The Olympic Anthem was written for the 1896 Olympics, the first Olympic games of the modern era.
Arnaud wrote "Bugler's Dream" as part of a larger work in 1957. For the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, ABC chose the the piece as their anthem, embedding it into the minds of Americans, as we listened every night for two weeks every four years.

Secondly, many people would say that the piece was written by John Williams, famed erstwhile director of the Boston Pops. Traditionally, each host country commissions a new song to represent the games that year. Williams was commissioned for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and wrote "Olympic Theme and Fanfare." In 1992, Williams re-recorded the piece, replacing the first section with Arnaud's theme, merging the two together.

Once ABC lost their exclusive rights to the Olympic broadcast in 1988, Americans missed the chance to hear the song before and after every commercial while watching the games in Seoul. But in 1992, NBC revived the piece for their coverage of the Barcelona Olympics. NBC continues to use both "Bugler's Dream" and "Olympic Theme and Fanfare" in their Olympic coverage.

The music reminds us of the spirit as well as the spectacle of the Olympics, and Chicago Bronze is pleased to bring it to you this year, in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Chicago.