Introduction to Music, Fall 2017

Prof. Jake Cohen, Rutgers-Newark

Author: Jake Cohen (page 1 of 3)

William Grant Still

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an African American composer who began his career in the 1920s. He grew up in the south, in Arkansas, and received scholarships to study with well known American composers in the 1910s. After serving in the navy in 1918, Still worked for the most famous professional blues band in the country, run by the blues composer W. C. Handy. Still arranged music for this band, and played in the pit orchestra for the first all-black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along. Still also studied with the ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse, with whom he learned highly dissonant and experimental styles of music. He composed a number of works in this style that combined African American musical styles such as jazz and the blues with experimental modern music.

By the late 1920s, Still realized he wanted to compose an African American style of classical music that represented his identity as both an American composer and an African American. The result was the Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930. It was the first symphony by a black composer ever performed by a major American symphony orchestra when it premiered with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931.

Regarding his symphony, Still wrote that:

I seek in the “Afro-American Symphony” to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.

Here, Still indicates that he did not want to simply assimilate black musical styles into the elite world of the symphony, but that he wanted to represent “sons of the soil,” the authentic music of working class blacks in America whose musical heritage had not been assimilated into mainstream American white culture.

To do this, Still wrote a relatively standard Romantic style symphony movement where all the themes are blues melodies, specifically 12-bar blues melodies. Many of them are adapted from W. C. Handy’s famous song “St. Louis Blues,” popularized by Bessie Smith:

Because the piece is a symphony, Still plays with our expectations by giving us a first movement in sonata-allegro form. So we get the expected (orchestra, sonata form, Romantic-era timbres and style) and the unexpected (muted trumpet playing a 12-bar blues melody). Below you can see a rough listening guide for the following video:

0:00 – Introduction


0:30 – Theme I, a 12-bar blues melody based on Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” muted trumpet. Walking bass in cellos, accompaniment response figure in brass and winds.

1:07 – Theme I repeated by clarinet, pizzicato strings accompany, flute provides response melodies

1:49 – Bridge theme by full orchestra, develops elements from theme I

2:25 – Theme II, gentle lyrical melody in the English horn, harp and strings play chords in support


3:23 – New blues-based themes, lots of harp with wind responses

3:54 – Strings with fragmentary melodies, lots of syncopation and faster, more active “jazzy” rhythms

5:00 – Another new blues theme in strings, sentimental, not 12-bar blues


5:46 – Theme I returns in muted brass with “swing” beat in percussion and strings.

No theme II in recapitulation.

Still’s music was part of a larger trend in American classical music known as “symphonic jazz,” where composers would combine elements of jazz with genres and performing forces of the concert hall. The most well known examples of these works are actually by white composers, such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Alden Carpenter, and George Antheil. Black musicians and composers still faced many obstacles in the music industry to even get a chance to hear their music performed. Many performing groups were still segregated, as were some venues (if not by law, then in practice, especially in New York City). Additionally, black composers faced additional obstacles in the classical music world which was so dominated by white composers, producers, music directors, and patrons. For example, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a kind of jazz piano concerto, achieved far more fame and acclaim than Still’s Symphony did, and today it is a much more well known piece than Still’s:

Many white critics and musicians felt that putting jazz in the concert hall was the only way to “elevate” it from its crude, rough style, a sentiment that reflects the many racist attitudes towards black music and art at the time.

Chance Music and John Cage

One style of experimental music in the mid-twentieth century was an interest in using chance, or indeterminate, procedures in music composition. This meant that composers would leave some element of a piece of music to chance, and this varied greatly between different pieces. Sometimes certain elements of a piece, like pitch, note duration, or rhythm, would be determined by chance procedures, like throwing dice or using the ancient Chinese divination book the I Ching. Other times the composer might tell the performers that they can arrange sections of music in any order they like. Significantly, this means that every performance of chance music will be unique and will not sound the same. This was a big development in music and quite controversial, as it downplayed the importance of an authoritative version of a piece, downplayed the role of the music as a fixed text that could be performed, and also gave more freedom to the performers or interpreters, while taking away certain elements of compositional control from the composer.

John Cage (1912-1992) was one of the most well known composers of chance music. In many of his compositions, one or more elements are left to chance. One of his compositions is called Imaginary Landscape No. 5, and is a piece of music that is recorded (not performed live) with a score in block graph notation that indicates the volume and duration of 42 different pre-existing recordings. Cage was very specific about the duration and volume of each recording, but he left the choice of which recordings to use up to each individual performance. This recording shows the score as well – you can see that Cage did not use traditional music notation, since it would have no meaning in this kind of piece.

Other recordings available are very different:

(The baton twirler is not part of the score, but it does fit well with Cage’s philosophy of mixing different kinds of performance in indeterminate ways)

Cage was also known for writing music with his partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, where the dancing and the music were written independently, and did not necessarily sync up as music and dance traditionally do.

Cage’s other major contribution to music history was his pioneering thoughts on the role of silence in music. Cage believed that silence was just as important as what we traditionally call music. Much of his philosophy was inspired by his study of Zen Buddhism. He gave a lecture first printed in 1959 called “Lecture on Nothing” in which he wrote:

I am here, and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking. Give anyone thought a push: it faIls down easily; but the pusher and the pushed pro-duce that entertainment called a dis-cussion. Shall we have one later? Or, we could simply de-cide not to have a discussion. What ever you like. But now there are silences and the words make help make the silences.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it. This space of time is organized. We need not fear these silences, — We may love them.

What is especially remarkable about this text is that Cage wrote it as though it were music, in proportional spacing with measures and large amounts of space in between the words to indicate silences. This is how those first two paragraphs look written out:

lecture on nothing

You can listen to Cage himself read from the middle of the “Lecture on Nothing” here, follow along with the score below on the right-hand page:

lecture on nothing middle

What’s fascinating is that if you look at the text surrounding this part of the lecture, it’s all the same thing with slight variation. Cage is repeating the same text, with slight variation, over and over, narrating the progress through the lecture. He encourages us to see the art in that and to let go of our preconceptions of what a lecture “should do” (just as we must let go of our expectations of what music “should do”) and take pleasure in present, which is inspired by Buddhist philosophy. In some ways, Cage sees no difference between the performance of this lecture and the performance of what we traditionally call “music.”

Here, Cage articulates his beliefs about sound and silence towards the end of his life:

Cage’s beliefs about silence and sound as music are represented in the extreme in his most famous piece composed in 1952, which is called 4’33” (pronounced “four minutes thirty-three seconds” or just “four thirty-three”). In this piece, Cage wrote a score in proportional notation (the size of the score represents the passage of time exactly) in which there is nothing written on the page. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, to be performed by any instrument or group of instruments.

Here, we see that our expectation is going to be one of a “musical” performance. We see a pianist, and a piano, and so we have certain expectations about what is going to happen. Do we really hear silence? In fact, with no sound in the piece, we hear everything else. Cage encourages us to listen to all the sounds that are constantly present, challenging our notion of whether there is such as thing as “silence.” In fact, we hear lots of sound: we hear the ticking of the stopwatch, primarily, but we also hear breathing, the sound of the pianist shuffling, the sound of the audience moving in their chairs. In fact, 4’33” could be considered chance music as well, because every performance will have a different set of ambient sounds that you’ll hear (e.g. the ambient sound of a room, HVAC systems, wind through open windows, the sound of cars passing by outside, the sound of the audience coughing, etc.). If you search YouTube for performances of 4’33” you’ll find a wide variety of different versions, each that sounds different even though each one is “just” silence.

Wagner and the Leitmotif

Richard Wagner believed that part of what made his operas unique was the way that he sought after a seamless integration of the orchestral music with the vocal music and the drama unfolding onstage. In fact, he called his operas “music dramas,” almost as if to acknowledge that he felt his works were of a different genre than the other popular contemporary operas (especially those of French and Italian composers like Meyerbeer and Verdi). One way that he achieved a greater dialogue between text, orchestra, singers, and drama was to develop a system of Leitmotifs, which were short melodic ideas associated with a particular character, place, or idea. Wagner was influenced by Berlioz’s orchestral program music, and indeed the idea of a Leitmotif, of using a recurring melodic motive to represent a specific element of the story, is identical to Berlioz’s designation of a particular melody for his idée fixe.

Like Berlioz, Wagner also develops and manipulates his Leitmotifs to serve the dramatic and psychological action onstage. Remember how Berlioz, in the fifth movement of Symphonie fantastique, turns his idée fixe melody into a diabolical dance by having it played with excessive trills and a lively triple meter by a clarinet in order to represent how his beloved is now a cackling witch (in his own hallucination). Similarly, Wagner puts his Leitmotifs in different instruments, has them play at varying tempos and dynamic levels, and fragments or combines them to help tell his story. Wagner even uses Leitmotifs to shed light on things that are unknown to the characters, to foreshadow or remind us of things in the past, or to enhance the audience’s understanding of a character or idea.

In the massive, four-opera epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs, one way that Wagner achieves unity between all four operas (and within each of those operas) is to use an elaborate and extensive system of Leitmotifs, which he uses to generate much of the melodic material of the entire work. The Act I finale of Die Walküre, the second music drama of the cycle, is a great example of how multiple different Leitmotifs can tell the story. In this scene, we hear a number of important Leitmotifs:

Valhalla, the home of the gods:

Love motif:

Volsung motif, the name of the human race that includes Sieglinde and Siegmund

Renunciation of Love motif, symbolizing the idea that people give up love and humanity in order to achieve wealth or power:

Sword motif:

Spring motif:

The story of The Ring is naturally quite long and complicated, but what you need to know for this scene is that the two characters singing are Siegmund (tenor) and Sieglinde (soprano). Siegmund does not know who he is, he calls himself “Woeful” (Wehwalt), and Sieglinde lives an unhappy life with her husband Hunding, whom she was forced to marry. A stranger, who is actually Wotan the king of the gods, once stuck a sword into a tree in Sieglinde’s house which no one can remove, and told Sieglinde that only a true hero could remove it. During the course of Act I of Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde gradually fall in love. In this final scene, they discover that their father is the same person, and they are in fact twins. Their father is none other than Wotan, although they don’t know that he is a god, they refer to him as his human form “Volsa,” from which their race gets its name. Siegmund removes the sword from the tree, and they escape together in love.

Throughout this scene, listen for how Wagner uses the Leitmotifs listed above to accompany the dramatic action and tell the story.

Test 3 Study Guide

Download the study guide here, or view in the window below (there is a second page, use the arrows at the bottom to advance pages)

test 3 study guide


Thought Question 2 – DUE Thursday 11/30

Hard copy (paper) due at the beginning of class, Thursday 11/30

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an example of program music—instrumental music that is written based on a story, text, place, or person. This is different from opera or art songs (Lieder) because there is no text in the music to tell the story. Instead, the composer provided audiences with a written explanation of the story each movement meant to illustrate. In the case of Berlioz, he takes us on a journey through the tortured process of the Artist, whose soul travels from blindly in love to depraved and delusional through the course of five movements.

Symphonie fantastique tells the story of a young artist (possibly Berlioz himself) who is obsessed with a woman. One innovative idea that Berlioz introduces is to associate a specific melody with his obsession. In French, the word for obsession is “idée fixe,” which translates literally to “fixed idea.” She is an idea that becomes fixed in the artist’s mind and he cannot stop thinking about her. The melody that Berlioz chooses to represent this obsessive thought is also commonly referred to as the “idée fixe.” It is a melody that leaps upward, as though to represent his longing, and then sadly falls back down. It then repeats and keeps going upward, never attaining any kind of harmonic goal or melodic completion, always feeling unresolved in some way (much like his obsessive love). By assigning a specific melody to the idée fixe, Berlioz is able to show how this thought cannot escape the protagonist (it keeps recurring in all five movements, remaining stubbornly present in the music), but he is also able to manipulate the melody depending on the story: he can make it slower, faster, he can fit it into different meters or play it with different timbres, and he can distort it into new melodies related to the original. This is what the idée fixe sounds like the first time it appears in the first movement, as played by the strings. Listen to it multiple times to get accustomed to the sound of this melody, especially the first two phrases:


Read through the program notes, written out by Berlioz, describing how the music represents both his beloved obsession (idée fixe) as well as the imitative sounds of bones, witches cackling, and a guillotine in action (the program notes begin at the word “Note,” but read the introduction in smaller font which provides additional context for the program note). Listen to the fourth and only the fourth movement (not the fifth!) of Symphonie Fantastique a few times, and follow along with the text. Answer these questions concerning only the fourth movement.

  • Do you think that Berlioz follows his program well?
  • Describe some of the musical elements that imitate events in the fourth movement. Use the appropriate terminology, for example: “the percussive effect of col legno strings sounds like the rattling of bones.”
  • Finally, also answer which you think was written first, the music or the text. State why.

Answer all three questions in an “essay” form, that is, do not list bullet point or numbered answers. Write at least one page. To qualify for full credit, you must address all three parts of the question. Again, you should only address the fourth movement. If you’re confused about this, ask.

organ recital

Hi class,

On Monday, Nov. 20th from 10:00, RU-N choral director Brian Harlow is giving a lecture demonstration of the pipe organ at St. Mary’s Church Newark Abbey. Brian is an internationally recognized organist and has performed in Europe and the United States. We’re very lucky to have him performing for us!

St. Mary’s is just down the street from Bradley Hall, at 520 Martin Luther King Blvd. If you arrive late, please enter the church quietly and respectfully. This is an optional performance! 

research and Grove Music Online

For your concert preview, which is due before your concert takes place, you need to submit a short preview of the pieces that you’ll be seeing. One component of this assignment is that you need to do some light research on the composer(s) and piece(s) you’ll be seeing. Below you’ll find some instructions on this.


Finding books in the Rutgers library is an important research skill. Start at the library’s homepage,

Under the “Books and Media” tab, you can do a search right there by Keyword or Subject. You can also click “More Options” to get more refined search tools.

Keyword searches will look for your search term anywhere in the record. This can be the author, the title, the subject, or if there is a description or table of contents listed in the catalogue. Subject searches are more specific and will look for just the books subject categories. This can be helpful when you want to specifically look for a particular composer.

If we are looking for books on Shostakovich, we might start by doing a subject search.

Once you have your results, you can start to filter. Start by selecting only books. If you only want books that are at the Newark library, filter by location and choose “Dana.”

Otherwise, you can request that a book from another Rutgers library be sent to pick up at Dana by selecting “Book Delivery” and following the instructions. Note that it will take a day or two to get here.

It’s also important to note the year the book was published. You may even want to filter by date. Generally, you’ll want to avoid books written before 1960 because there is almost certainly something that’s been written more recently with updated scholarship.

Once you have the books you want, note the call number and go retrieve them from the shelf. If you’re unsure how call numbers work or where something is, just ask a librarian.

Another good research option is to browse by subject. To do this, click “More Options” on the “Books & Media” tab on the library homepage, which will bring you to a new search page with the option to browse.

Here, you can browse by subject, and then get a list of results which will take you to individual books and records. You can then filter in the same way as above.

Grove Music Online

A good online resource that can supplement your book search and that is much more reliable than wikipedia is Grove Music Online. This is a music dictionary that is written by scholars and is fully searchable, and it’s accessible only through the library. This is the only acceptable online source you should use for this assignment. To access, go to the library homepage and then click “View all databases.”

From here, select “Grove Music Online” alphabetically under “G.” 

If you’re off campus, you’ll have to enter your NetID. Once logged in, you can search for your composer. Be sure to limit your search to Grove Music only.

Once you have the article, you can read about the composer’s life and also click on the “works” tab on the left to see more about the works.

As always, please feel free to ask questions. Be sure that your concert preview is uploaded before your concert.

Your concert preview should cite the sources you use with parenthetical citations. For books, use the following format:

Author Last, First names. Book Title. Place of publication: Publisher, Year.


Norris, Christopher. Shostakovich: The Man and His Music. Boston: M. Boyars, 1982.

And you would cite the work like this (Norris 1982, pg. #).

For articles on Grove, click on the “cite” button in the upper right corner.

Test 2 Study Guide

Here is the study guide for test 2. Please email with any questions.

Blog entry 4

Beethoven and Deafness

In narratives about the life of Beethoven, the fact that he lost his hearing in his late 20s but still continued to compose many of his greatest works is often cited as a marker of his genius, of a heroic instance of overcoming a disability. Indeed, in popular depictions of his life (such as the movies Immortal Beloved or Copying Beethoven) or nearly any time Beethoven is cited in literature, his deafness plays a central role in the identity of the composer.

Part of the reason for this is because, as music scholar Joseph Straus has noted, many people in the nineteenth century were obsessed with stories where someone overcame a disability or abnormality to achieve some kind of triumph. Straus also writes that many scholars, commentators, and critics have linked Beethoven’s deafness specifically to “heroic” qualities in his music.

A dramatic plan that involves the attempted recuperation of disability can be productively understood in part as a musical response to the composer’s own disability. This approach is encouraged by Beethoven himself who, in an oft-quoted remark from a 1806 sketchbook, wrote, “Just as you are plunging yourself into the whirlwind of society, and even as it is now possible for you, despite all social obstacles, to compose operas–let your deafness no longer be a secret–even in art.” The literature on Beethoven has long recognized some sort of link between the changes in Beethoven’s life (i.e., his deafness) and changes in his musical style. His middle period, often called his “heroic” period, begins with his realization that his hearing loss is serious and permanent, and critics have suggested that the heroism of his musical style reflects his personal heroism in the face of increasingly difficult life circumstances. As Solomon [one of Beethoven’s biographers] claims, “[Beethoven’s] deafness was the painful chrysalis within which his ‘heroic’ style came to maturity.”

Joseph N. Straus, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (New York: Oxford U Press, 2011), 52.

One of the reasons this narrative has such staying power is because of a twenty-five year old document found after Beethoven’s death in 1827 in which he admits that he nearly gave up on music (and life) because of his deafness in 1802, but instead chose to forge ahead. Called the “Heiligenstadt Testament” (named after the Austrian town near Vienna where Beethoven wrote it), the document is a letter to his brothers and reads almost like a testimonial will.

Download the Heiligenstadt Testament here, or read in the viewer below. (Make sure to scroll down in the viewer, and you may have to zoom out to read pg. 3. Zoom and page advancing controls appear at the bottom of the page. )


(from Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin [New York: Schirmer, 1984])

However, especially in recent years, scholars have begun to question whether we should understand Beethoven’s music and life as a heroic overcoming of disability. Musicologist Jessica A. Holmes writes

Deafness is believed to be the menace that plagued our beloved Beethoven, and it endures as the ultimate symbol of his transcendent musical genius. But the notion that deafness precludes musical understanding is fundamentally a misconception, as music scholars Anabel Maler, Jeannette Jones, and Joseph Straus have recently argued, one that relies on an exclusively aural conception of sound and a disproportionately extreme impression of hearing loss. This groundbreaking scholarship reminds us that deaf people have long engaged with music through tactile, visual, and kinesthetic stimuli as an alternative to normal hearing

Jessica A. Holmes, “Expert Listening Beyond the Limits of Hearing: Music and Deafness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 70, no. 1 (2017): 172-73.

In other words, people are able to hear music in ways other than just aurally (through the ears), and therefore deaf people are able to hear in other ways. At the same time, able-bodied listeners often imagine hearing loss to be more extreme than it may be for some deaf people.

For your fourth blog post, read Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament above and then consider the following questions:

  • Should Beethoven’s deafness have any impact on how we understand his music? Explain your answer.
  • Do we fetishize narratives where a person overcomes disability? Explain why you think so or not.
  • Straus argues that the “triumph narrative” shows up especially in places where Beethoven creates some kind of musical “abnormality” or deviation from expectations and norms, and then later “resolves” or “solves” the problem. Choose a moment in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that you think might be a good example of these kind of “triumph” narratives. Why do you think so? Try not to talk about your own personal feelings about the music, but rather, concrete musical elements such as form, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamics, etc.

Create this post by 5pm on Friday, November 17. Be sure to use the category “Blog Entry 4” or it will not count for credit!

rap lyrics and reality

Hi class, I’m giving back your Thought Question 1 papers Tuesday and I thought you might like to read these op-ed articles written by a professor at the University of Richmond, Erik Nielson, who is often called to testify as an expert witness in legal cases where rap lyrics are used as part of a legal argument to secure a conviction. I thought that many of you had interesting things to say about the issue and this might illuminate some real-world ramifications of this complex issue.

NY Times

Washington Post

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