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American Music: The Sherman Brothers or Some Thoughts on Creative Collaboration

For decades two brothers dominated the scene of movie songs, hired on as the Disney Studio songwriters and later went on to write music for other films.  Robert and Richard Sherman wrote pretty much everything from 1961 to 2000, and now their music is found in Broadway remakes of the movies.

I say everything, because so much of the movie music that I loved from my childhood comes from them.  Here are a few of my favorites (this is not an all inclusive list, just a few from each movie – there are many more for each one);

  • Summer Magic (1963) Femininity, On the Front Porch, Ugly Bug Ball
  • Mary Poppins (1964) Spoonful of Sugar, Stay Awake, Chim-Chim-Cheree, Sister Suffragette, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Stay Awake, Let’s go Fly a Kite
  • Winnie the Pooh (1966 and 1968) Winnie the Pooh, Little Black Rain Cloud, The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers, Hefalumps and Woozels, The Rain Rain Rain Came Down, Down, Down
  • The Jungle Book (1967) Colonel Hathi’s March The Elephant Song, I Wanna Be Like You The Monkey Song, That’s What Friends Are For The Vulture Song
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) Hushabye Mountain, Me Ol’ Bamboo, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) The Age of Not Believing, Eglantine, Portobello Road, The Beautiful Briny, Substitutiary Locomotion
  • The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976) Why Can’t I Be Two People?, Once I Was Loved, What A Comforting Thing To Know, Protocoligorically Correct, A Bride Finding Ball, Suddenly It Happens, Secret Kingdom, He Danced With Me/She Danced With Me, Position and Positioning, Tell Him Anything But Not That I Love Him, I Can’t Forget The Melody

I love the way that their lyrics are full of wonderful word play.  For example look at the following song;

What a Comforting Thing to Know

(from The Slipper and the Rose, which was my favorite movie as a girl.)

Good kings, bad kings
Sane kings or mad kings
Benevolent or nefarious
Here is where they bury us
Oh ho ho
What a comforting thing to know
There’s a pre-arranged spot in the family plot where my royal bones will go
Yes, I’ll be slipped into the beautiful family crypt
Oh ho ho
What a comforting thing to know

The lyrics are so clever and the music is catchy, easy to remember.   Here is a site in which you can find all the lyrics to the songs from that musical.

This is one of the songs (again from the movie) Protocoligorically Correct, I think it is such a kick to see these older men dancing in their tights :).

So many, many happy memories are tied to these songs!

Bob & Dick Sherman and Walt Disney

Recently (2009), their sons made a documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story about their lives and their partnership.  Here is a site from the creators that highlights the film.

The filmmakers bring up an interesting point in the movie, that the brothers worked together but due to a family rift, they led separate lives and their families had virtually no contact with each other.  So, men that made music for happy families for over fifty years had a dysfunctional family.  Jeff and Gregg Sherman (the film-making cousins)  do a very good job of not pinning blame on either brother.  The film also showed how amazing it is that their very different personalities intersected in a way that created a tremendous amount of work.  They were able to set aside their difficulties and collaborate together.

Which brings me to some thoughts I’ve been having lately about collaboration.  Steven R. Covey talks a lot about the synergy of ideas that can come when people work together.  I agree that there are times when “two heads are definitely better than one,” but there are also times when collaboration can run away and change your idea so far from the original vision that it hardly seems recognizable.

I think that in those moments, it’s so important to have good communication.  But, when one of the group is overbearing in their ideas, it can become pretty difficult.

There is a difference though between collaborating on an idea as equal partners and getting feedback and collaboration on a project on which you are the “master” – you can take or leave the ideas depending on which ones will work for your overall vision.

What are your thoughts?  When has teamwork been a positive experience?  When has it “backfired?”

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Handel’s Messiah

As promised, I wanted to write in more detail about Handel’s Messiah in connection with the Christmas season and the previous post about George Frideric Handel in the composers section, then I read an article that perfectly stated the things that I wanted to share, and added much more.  An excerpt from it is as follows:

After all the music he had composed throughout his lifetime, Handel would eventually be known worldwide for this singular work, Messiah,largely composed in just three weeks during the late summer of 1741. Upon completing his composition, he humbly acknowledged, “God has visited me.”5 Those who feel the touch of the Holy Spirit as they experience the overpowering testimony of Handel’s Messiah would agree.

To the sponsors of the first performance of the oratorio, Handel stipulated that profits from this and all future performances of Messiah “be donated to prisoners, orphans, and the sick. I have myself been a very sick man, and am now cured,” he said. “I was a prisoner, and have been set free.”6

Following the first London performance of Messiah, a patron congratulated Handel on the excellent “entertainment.”

“My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them,” Handel humbly replied. “I wish to make them better.”7

The full article, Handel and the Gift of Messiah, by Elder Spencer J. Condie can be found here and is well worth a read.

Then today, I had a discussion with a friend about the Messiah, and he said that he didn’t know it.  I sang a few bars from the Hallelujah Chorus, which of course he had heard.  So, in honor of that friend, I will post a few of my favorite pieces from that Oratorio.

If you ever go to a Messiah sing-along, they are amazing!  The entire Messiah can be as long as three hours, (there are 52 movements, or sections, total) and it typically is performed by an Orchestra and Soloists, and the Audience sings with the soloists on the major ensemble pieces.  Here is a site that lists the movements and the text for each of the sections.

I’ll just share a few of the more familiar parts of the Oratorio –

For Unto Us a Child is Born the text comes from Isaiah 9:6 This is a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Hallelujah Chorus the text comes from Revelation 19:6, Revelation 11:15, Revelation 19:16.  This is a Flash Mob performance at the The Welland Seaway Mall, in Niagara Falls, Canada on November 13, 2010.  I chose this performance because I was truly touched by the emotion of  both the singers and the observers in the mall.

I Know that My Redeemer Liveth the text comes from Job 19:25-26.  I searched for a video that I thought did it justice, and though this is just a live recording, I love the ethereal sound of the soprano and the way that her voice sounds with the acoustics is just lovely.  It was sung by soprano Luísa Kurtz, accompanied by the UCS Orchestra on December 12, 2007, Catedral de Santa Teresa, Caxias do Sul, RS – Brazil.

(There is also an up-tempo, “pop” performance by Sister Gladys Knight.  I love it because she is singing her testimony.)

Some other lovely movements from this work are:

  • Comfort Ye My People
  • O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion
  • Glory to God in the Highest
  • Worthy is the Lamb and AMEN
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Ombra Mai Fu and Water Music – AHH Handel

For Joyce –

I actually hadn’t heard of Ombra Mai Fu, and had to do some research (so thank you, because I found a new favorite).  It is is the opening aria from the 1738 opera Serse by George Frideric Handel and is quite lovely.  I don’t think they sound too similar, but then again, some of his work seems, at times, repetitive (forgive me, Handel).

I just wanted to post three more selections from Handel, in honor of  Joyce.

Ombra Mai Fu – This is Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Cardiff 1989, bad video quality and it cuts off abruptly, but it’s a little taste and WHAT a voice!

Water Music – Performed by The King’s Consort and Conducted by Robert King

Finally, if you don’t have time for anything else – THIS is worth a listen and a watch.

Music for the Royal Fireworks – From the Queen’s Jubilee Concerts, Buckingham Palace(2002) conducted by Andrew Davis.

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George Frideric Handel

Handel in a 1733 portrait by Balthasar Denner

In honor of the Christmas season, my third composer is George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), born in Germany (Halle, Brandenburg-Prussia) and settled in London, becoming a naturalized British subject. He was trained in Italy and influenced by Italian Baroque and German Choral traditions.

A few interesting tidbits from his life are as follows:

  • According to John Mainwaring, his first biographer, “Handel had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. He strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument but Handel found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep” (taken from a Wikipedia article on Handel).
  • He was a very good businessman, investing in the South Sea Stock, and starting three Opera Companies.  Even though, as business does, there were financial ups and downs  for Handel, he died a wealthy man.
  • He was a philanthropist, setting up a yearly benefit concert of the Messiah to benefit the Founding Hospital and giving to a charity for impoverished musicians and their families.
  • He wrote 42 Operas, 29 Oratorios, 120 other Choral works (cantatas, trios, duets, etc) and 16 Organ Concerti.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) stated  –  “Raphael paints wisdom, Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.”
  • Handel committed a lot of plagiarism, and when asked why, he said, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.” Another composer, William Boyce (1711-1779) said of it, “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.”
  • ” The figure of Handel was large, and he was somewhat corpulent, and unwieldy in his motion; but his countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of ire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversations, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence.” (Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances…in Commemoration of Handel (1785))

Here is a sample of his work, Zadock the Priest, Coronation Anthem No. 1 (the most famous of these Anthems) and one that has always touched me.  This one was performed at the Queen’s Concerts, Buckingham Palace for her Majesty the Queen during her Golden Jubilee in 2002 – BBC Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.  I loved the video in the background of Queen Elizabeth’s actual coronation.

I have a list of some more of his works on the music page.

Research from this post came from the following sites –

http://www.gfhandel.org (for an in-depth look, and the source of many of the quotes)

Wikipedia (for a quick overview)

I will write more about his work, The Messiah, in the next post.

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach in a 1748 portrait by Haussmann

My next composer is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) a German composer who wrote during the Baroque period.  Bach was a proficient musician, playing the organ, harpsichord, violin, and viola and wrote and improvised copious amounts of music.

J.S. Bach came from a long line of musicians and four of his children became famous composers as well.  In three decades, over 50 Bachs were known musicians, several of them notable composers.

He was famous in his day as an Organist and Organ tester and constructor.  As a musician, a composer, and in his ability to take a musical theme and improvise on it.

Constantin Bellermann described his playing as follows; His feet seemed to fly across the pedals as if they were winged, and mighty sounds filled the church.

Another Musician of the time stated; His fingers were all of equal strength, all equally able to play with the finest precision. He had invented so comfortable a fingering that he could master the most difficult parts with perfect ease [using 5 fingers instead of the then normal 3]. He was able to accomplish passages on the pedals with his feet which would have given trouble to the fingers of many a clever player on the keyboard.

JS Bach had 20 children, though only ten lived to adulthood.  The first seven were with his first wife, Maria Barbara who suddenly died at age 35.  His second wife Anna Magdalena, was a gifted Soprano and 17 years his junior.  They had 13 children and a very loving relationship.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was that they would often have giant family musical parties and Anna Magdalena organized regular musical evenings featuring the whole family playing and singing together with visiting friends.

Another thing that I loved in researching his life was the fact that he would create notebooks of music for his wife (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach) and children (many keyboard works for their instruction).  What a wonderful idea, to create something for the benefit and instruction of your own family.

I also found some quotes attributed to Bach that left an impression on me;

  • There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. 🙂
  • I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.
  • The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.
  • Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.

Here is a youtube video of  Julian Lloyd Webber plays Bach’s Air on the G string with pianist Rebecca Woolcock.

My research for this came from the following places –

http://www.baroquemusic.org/bqxjsbach.html (for a very in-depth look)

Wikipedia (for a quick over-view)

Mr. Bach Comes to Call, The Children’s Group, 1988 CD

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Franz Joseph Haydn

As I’ve been trying to update my Music section, I chose an artist that I had little knowledge of and decided to find out more about him while selecting the music that I loved that he created.  I’m going to do a section on composers that I can use to educate my children.  I hope that it will be helpful to you as well.

Haydn portrait by Thomas Hardy, 1792

I started with Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), an Austrian composer who is considered the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the String Quartet” because of his important contributions, and the sheer volume of music that he composed.

Haydn was famous in his day and died a rich man.  He was friends with Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven.

Three ideas that struck me about his life were the following –

1.  He stated that he was “forced to become original” because he was isolated from other composers and trends in music.

I love this because it is difficult not to compare yourself and your creations to “the latest” but if you allow yourself to create what you like, you will not only be original, but you will develop your own perfected style and ability.

2.  As a young man, Haydn was poor and had been a servant, and later a busy entrepreneur, Haydn wrote his works quickly and in profusion, with frequent deadlines. As a rich man, Haydn now felt he had the privilege of taking his time and writing for posterity. Two of his symphonies – the Creation and the Seasons took over a year to compose.

It is fascinating to think about creating because you want to and creating because you must (to pay the bills, etc.)  My father’s family is always creating – art, literature, family treasures, etc.  They do it for the sheer love of making something, and because they’ve been working and practicing, they are able to sell their work.  What a contrast between that and being afraid to create because you don’t want to “get it wrong”.

3. In his older years, he was affected by illness to a point that he was unable to compose any more.  This was extremely difficult for him because “the flow of fresh musical ideas waiting to be worked out as compositions did not cease.”

This is a concept that I am all too familiar with.  So often I have 15 book ideas running around in my head and no time to write.  Aargh!

Another thing that it made me think about was how creative work breeds more creative ideas.  The human brain is amazing – you start small and more and more ideas come until you have a storage of ideas – so many that it’s hard to know what to work on first.  Becoming a being of creation rather than one of  destruction is exponential.  I wonder what other works Haydn has been writing in heaven. 🙂

Here is one my absolute all time favorite pieces of music that Haydn wrote – The Trumpet Concerto, enjoy!