We’ve finally reached December, the twelfth month of the year. In honor of this duodecimal milestone, this week, the Ether Game Brain Trust will be celebrating the number twelve. So, count on your 10 fingers and two of your toes, it’s a show we’re calling “Cheaper By The Dozen.”
Here are 12 pieces for the number 12 playlist:
1. The 12 Months of the Year – Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847), Das Jahr – There are many works written about the most famous group of twelve: the 12 months of the year, including a set of 12 piano pieces by Tchaikovsky. Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr is one of the greatest of these monthly depictions. The piano work is more than a set of character pieces about the months, it’s also a travelogue describing the composer’s trip to Rome she took with her family in 1841. In “February” for instance, you hear a bit of a Roman Carnival, whereas April displays her sadness after leaving the ancient city. For the 12th and final piece of this 12-month musical journey, Mendelssohn not only remembers her time arriving in Rome, but also reflects on the Christmas season, including segments of the Christmas hymns “Von Himmel hoch da komm ich hier” and “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist.”
2. The Clock Strikes Twelve! – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), The Nutcracker: Act I, Scene I: Clara and the Nutcracker – The twelve strikes of a mechanical clock, chiming the midnight hour, have appeared in operas, ballets and symphonies for several centuries. During the holiday season, one of its most famous applications occurs during the first act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker. After the mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer has gifted Clara a nutcracker soldier and the family Christmas party has ended, Clara returns to the living room to check on her nutcracker. As she admires the Christmas Tree, the great clock in the room strikes midnight and she notices Godfather Drosselmeyer perched above the clock. Suddenly the room fills with evil mice who go to war with a battalion of gingerbread soldiers. Clara’s nutcracker springs to life and leads the gingerbread soldiers to defeat the mouse king. From there, the nutcracker leads Clara to the wondrous kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
3. Opus 12 – Edward Elgar (1857–1934), Salut d’Amour, Op. 12 – I suppose there’s nothing particularly special about an “Opus 12” work. More often than not, a composer’s “Opus 12” is not their twelfth work, just the twelfth work they chose to publish. However, Edward Elgar’s Opus 12 is one of his most special pieces of music. Salut d’Amour, Op. 12 for violin and piano was written for Caroline Alice Roberts as an engagement present. It must have done the trick, because Edward and Caroline stayed married for the rest of her life. Caroline became a notable author in her own right, and Edward set many of her poems to music. The opus 12 dedicated to her remains one of his most famous melodies. There must be something lucky about the number 12!
4. Twelfth Night, or the “12 Days of Christmas” – Henry Purcell (1659–1695), “If Music Be The Food Of Love” – “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” Those are the opening lines to Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, a work that takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany (the “twelfth night” of Christmas). The quote is one of the most famous excerpts in all of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Yet Shakespeare was not the source of this song by the English Baroque master Henry Purcell. Rather, the lyrics of this song were written by poet Henry Heveningham, and were no doubt inspired by Shakespeare’s play written 100 years prior. In fact, Purcell never truly set any lyrics by Shakespeare, but did write music to a number of works inspired by Shakespeare. These included three versions of this poem (inspired by Twelfth Night), a semi-opera called The Fairy Queen (inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and the semi-opera The Tempest, a revised and altered version of Shakespeare’s play of the same.
5. Works in groups of 12 – Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Preludes, Book I, “Footsteps in the Snow” – One might get the feeling of a chilly morning walk during the 12th month of the year when listening to this Prelude by Claude Debussy. The work comes from a larger set of Preludes that he wrote a little over a hundred years ago. Debussy’s Preludes were separated into two books, with each book containing twelve pieces. The model for writing a collection of twenty-four preludes in total originally began with J.S. Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume I. Bach wrote a prelude and fugue for all twenty-four keys (the major and minor key for each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale). This inspired Polish composer Frederic Chopin to make his own set of Preludes in the 1830s, also based on the 24 major and minor keys. Unlike those earlier preludes, Debussy’s have no key-related organization. They’re simply two groups of twelve works with programmatic titles, like “Footsteps In The Snow.”
6. 12/8 Time – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastoral”: II. Szene am Bach (Andante molto moto)
– Many folks out there may have first encountered this idyllic symphony movement in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony already had a very pictorial program associated with it when it was written: an idyllic day on the countryside moves towards a brook, where a gathering of merry folk is interrupted by a thunderstorm. In the film, however, the people are replaced by characters and creatures mostly from Greek mythology. This second movement, for instance, features centaurs and cupids bathing in that brook. The movement’s lilting sound comes from its time signature: 12/8. 12/8 is similar to the common 4/4 time signature: both have four beats to the measure. However in 12/8, each of the four beats are subdivided into groups of 3 (1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9, 10-11-12). 12/8 is relatively rare in classical music, but used often in popular music for a slow blues shuffle, heard in the blues.
7. The Twelve Apostles – William Walton (1902–1983), The Twelve – William Walton is often recognized for his masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast, but his anthem and mini-cantata The Twelve has been dubbed one of the most distinctive works of his repertoire. The curious title of the piece reads in full: The Twelve: An Anthem for the Feast of Any Apostle. The story goes that in 1965, Dr. Cuthbert Simpson, the Dean of Christ College, Oxford, was dissatisfied with the anthems available for Apostolic feast days at Christ Church in Oxford, days that celebrate Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. He commissioned Walton to compose music appropriate for the occasion, and asked poet W. H Auden to provide the lyrics. Though technically a collaboration, Walton and Auden interacted very little in completing the piece. They rarely met to discuss the project and only sporadically sent each other material. Nevertheless, the finished product is full of evocative vocal textures and a wide range of harmonic colors.
8. Twelve-Tone Technique – Anton Webern (1883–1945), Variations for Piano, Op. 27 – Although the music for Anton Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op. 27 might sound random to the untrained ear, the music is highly, almost obsessively, organized. It’s an example of twelve-tone music, a form of serialism. Twelve-tone serialism was invented by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s as an organizational principle for creating maximally atonal works. Webern was one of Schoenberg’s pupils in the so-called “Second Viennese School” of composition. There are twelve total notes, or “pitch classes,” in the Western musical scale. In most Western tonal music, one note is emphasized as the “tonic,” and the other notes act in relation to that tonic. In twelve-tone serialism, a specific order of all twelve notes is determined and then varied by playing it backwards, upside-down, transposed, or some combination. The result is a form of music that is maximally chromatic, highly determined, and often utterly perplexing to even the most attentive listeners.
9. 12-bar blues – W.C Handy (1873–1958), “Beale Street Blues” – The most common group of twelve measures in music is the twelve-bar blues, a staple of 20th century American popular music. The 12-bar blues is relatively simple to understand: it’s an AAB pattern with a standard harmonic formula, typically consisting of 12 total bars (four bars for each section, AAB). W.C. Handy was considered the “Father of the Blues,” and many of his songs are in this standard 12-bar blues pattern. “Beale Street Blues” from 1917 is one of them, but it’s also a little more complicated than that. The song begins with a description of the famous (or infamous) Memphis street, sung in an 8-bar form, typical of standard Tin Pan Alley songs. Then he describes a blind man on the corner singing the “Beale Street Blues.” That’s when the song turns into a regular 12-bar blues (starting at around 1:05 in this recording by Louis Armstorng), as the man sings his blue song.
10. A tango from the film 12 Monkeys – Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), Suite Punta del Este: I. Introduction: Allegro pesante – Astor Piazzolla’s Suite Punta del Este is a classic example of the composer’s “nuevo tango” style, combining the organization of classical music with the dance rhythms of the Argentinian tango. He also blends the two genres’ instrumentation, mixing orchestral instruments like flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon with the bandoneon, a traditional tango instrument similar to an accordian. This particular nuevo tango except has a certain relationship to the number twelve: it was featured as the main theme to the 1995 film 12 Monkeys. 12 Monkeys was directed by Terry Gilliam and stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt as they’re involved in a time-travelling thriller plot about a deadly virus. The post-apocalyptic themes of 12 Monkeys was based on the 1962 French short film La Jetée. In that film, humanity has been destroyed not by a killer virus, but rather a nuclear war.
11. A 12-stringed Instrument – Luis Milán (c. 1500–c. 1561), Pavan No. 1 – 16th-century Spanish composer Luis Milán was the first known author of music written for the instrument known as the vihuela. The vihuela is a stringed instrument similar to a guitar or lute. The main difference was the number and type of strings. The vihuela had twelve total strings, organized as six “courses”—that is, six doubled strings (doubled at the unison) to give each string a little more power and color. In many ways, the vihuela is similar to the modern 12-string guitar, although tuned differently. Milán was not a professional musician—rather, a nobleman from Valencia with a fondness for this 12-string instrument. His 1536 collection known as El Maestro was the first printed collection of vihuela music (or at least, the first to survive). This collection was also notable because it’s one of the first collections to include tempo markings, indicating fast or slow for the different movements.
12. Base 12 Mathematics – Bob Dorough (1923–2018), “Little Twelvetoes” (from Schoolhouse Rock: Multiplication Rock) – Schoolhouse Rock came about in the 1970s as a way to teach elementary school students about basic concepts, using the popular music of the day. Of all the Schoolhouse Rock songs, “Little Twelvetoes” might be the most complex—exploring a topic well outside of the elementary school curriculum. The song comes from the first Schoolhouse Rock series called Multiplication Rock, featuring all songs written by jazz songwriter Bob Dorough explaining the multiplication tables with rhyme and melody. When Dorough got to the number 12, however, it wasn’t just about multiplication tables. He explores the idea of a base 12 numerical system, positing what would happen if people were born with 12 fingers and 12 toes instead of 10. It’s a pretty heady concept that’s usually covered in advanced mathematics courses in high school or college. But “Little Twelvetoes” likely opened up the minds of many future mathematicians.