Dance of Death: Symphonic Dances

Ballroom dancers

Ballroom dancers

Continuing my series on Rachmaninov is the second movement from Symphonic Dances: Andante con moto (moderately slow with motion). This movement is a more obvious symphonic dance, a waltz to be precise. But I think you’ll find it very different from, say, a Johann Strauss II (1825-1899 aka “Waltz King”) waltz from the very first few notes.

A Strauss Waltz is typically in a major key and has a light, happy feeling. Rachmaninov’s waltz is in a minor key that modulates often, giving it an ominous, uneasy feeling. Some Strauss waltzes begin with a trumpet fanfare made up of major chords to announce the start of the dance, so dancers may find a partner. Rachmaninov’s fanfare is more like a broken train horn, a dissonant alarm from the peace and calm with which we ended the previous movement:

After some commentary in the form of a violin solo that settles into the minor key, the orchestra sinks into this beautiful, elegant, yet haunting melody played by English horn.

This melody of Rachmaninov’s is brilliant for two reasons. First, it has what every appealing phrase of music has: an antecedent and a consequent. A question and answer. Listen to the clip again. In the first half of the clip, the pitch is continually going upwards, the same way the inflection in our voice does when asking a question. The last note of the question is the note D, which leads us to the first note of the answer, G. Remember the song Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music? It is a song to teach how to sing the notes of a scale using Solfege. Remember the line, “That will lead us back to Do“? Well in this case, because the piece is in the key of G minor, Do is the note G. So is the note D. What are the last two words Julie Andrews sings? “So Do.” Question, answer. That is why it is so satisfying to listen to music. There are questions and answers; tension and relaxation.

Solfege

“Solfege”

The second reason this melody is so appealing is because it draws us in. Rachmaninov only features the note G (or Do) once in any significant way. Otherwise, the other notes dance around it, avoiding it as long as possible. He knew that our ears are always subconsciously yearning to hear Do. Every good composer delays this satisfaction to keep our interest.

I titled this post “Dance of Death” because the melody and harmony are so haunting. Please read my earlier post, “Fear of Death: Rachmaninov” where I explained the character of this piece in greater detail. This is the clip from that article of the climax of the movement:

What a devilishly delightful bit of writing that is! I love how Rachmaninov takes his original melody and builds upon it, going beyond its original form to add drama and suspense. After the fear of death rears its ugly head, the waltz speeds up into what I imagine to be a chase scene. It gets faster, louder, and seems to have a violent conclusion as the orchestra beats us over the head with the loud, short, unison rhythms that some conductors call “punches.”

Investigator_Medium_Size.30223337_stdThis whole movement could be imagined as one great chase scene, from the prison sirens going off at the beginning, to the slow, sneaky escape in the moonlight, to a dramatic chase by police, ending with the escape and fiendish laughter of the villain. But you don’t have to take my interpretation. Buy Symphonic Dances, listen to the whole piece, and use your imagination. Look for the questions and answers, the suspense, the “Ti-Do‘s,” “So-Do‘s” and the changes of character. If you learn to do this, I promise you’ll never be bored by Classical music again.

Drudgery and dreams: Symphonic Dances

RachmaninovIt is my pleasure to begin my series on Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), one of the better-known composers in Classical music. His music is considered late Romantic period, meaning that it has an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, emotion, and is more free-form than the logical structures and subtlety of the Classical period. Rachmaninov is also known for his beautiful melodies, extraordinary piano compositions and performances (note the big hands in the picture!), and uniquely Russian style.

Most of his compositions were written in czarist Russia before the revolution in 1917, when he fled to the United States after losing all of his property and status as a bourgeois. Rachmaninov did compose five major pieces while in the US however, the last of which was Symphonic Dances (Opus 45). A piece with three movements, Symphonic Dances is much like a symphony for full orchestra, but lacking the slow movement.

There are many exciting themes I’ve discovered in Symphonic Dances: the Drudgery of Everyday Life, the Dream of a Better Life, the Game of Life (not the trademarked one), and The Struggle Between Life and Death. I will cover the first two themes in this post concerning the first dance, entitled “Non-Allegro” (not fast).

Imagine the life of a coal miner. I recently watched October Sky for the first time and I think this first movement from Symphonic Dances would make an excellent part of the soundtrack.

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Imagine waking up before dawn to the sound of light rain drops against his window, getting dressed, leaving the house half-asleep, and boarding the elevator down, down, down into the mine. Then WHAM! Explosives! (symbolized by the loud, dissonant string chord progression and timpani)

When I hear this main theme, I think of the drudgery of life. How we all have to work even when we do not enjoy our jobs. The driving string ostinato in this clip may symbolize just how brutal working can feel, a sort of savage dance. The repeating minor arpeggios in the clarinet and oboe melody remind me of the repetitive tasks that must be completed.

Perhaps in the drudgery of work there is danger, like in coal mining, where explosives are involved and people are working in less-than-safe conditions. Or perhaps there is worry about payroll cuts and layoffs. This can create suspense, as evident in this clip:

The music here has such a finality, particularly when the orchestra ends these phrases on a minor chord with such certainty. It is amongst these sentiments that one may be inclined to dream. To escape to fantasy. The middle section of Non-Allegro expresses this.

Broad landscapeThe impressions are of floating among clouds where, out of a mist, comes the feeling of longing for a sense of safety and relaxation. Our coal miner is on his break and has “gone to his happy place.” The alto saxophone solo in this clip is rare in orchestral music. Did you think the saxophone could sound so sweet?

While this dream may seem possible for a moment, as expressed by the hopeful-sounding major chords in this next clip, the mood sinks back to drudgery again in the return of the main theme.

In the end of this movement, I imagine our worker going home after a long day, meeting with a friend, and getting some words of wisdom: “Learn to accept your present reality, look for the little things in life that make you happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.” Perhaps our working character goes to sleep in this last clip, again to the sound of rain drops against his window, with a lighter heart and feeling encouraged.

Big moments in Rachmaninov

I can’t really say that I am switching gears away from my series on Emotion in Classical Music, because a series on Rachmaninov demonstrates a wide spectrum of emotions.

RachmaninovUntil I find time to write in-depth about Rachmaninov’s music, here is a clip to tide you over. It is from the first movement of his second symphony.

I am a sucker for big orchestral moments. I love the raw power, the intensity, and the feeling of tingling down my spine and hairs raised on my neck. Is that wrong?

What is the feeling you get when you hear this clip? Does this clip remind you of a movie scene? If so, which one? I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to many, really.

Wrapping up Emotion

Tonight’s post is a lot of listening, so get your headphones, turn up the volume on your speakers, or plug your smart phone into your car stereo because here we go. But don’t read and drive.

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As I stated in my thesis regarding emotion in Classical music, I believe Classical music is not just for everyone, but for every occasion. I believe it speaks to every ounce of life experience a person may have. Though its roots are in Western Europe, it has spread throughout the world. And Classical music can have a meaningful, personal significance to each of us if we can learn to use our imagination and learn to hear what the music is saying. I have endeavored to demonstrate how to do that here at wax classical over the past several months.

However, it is time to move on. I believe I’ve made my point. But I can’t move on without sharing with you a small clip of the remaining pieces I had planned in the emotional categories of awe/wonder, loneliness/isolation, and flippant/sarcasm.

Awe/wonder: These two choral clips by Samuel Barber and Eric Whitacre are breath-taking. And Saint-Saens always gives me a sense of wonder in his music, but in no greater movement than Aquarium.

Loneliness/Isolation: Beethoven and Bach have it best when it comes to solitude, having lived much of their careers this way. I’ve always enjoyed Hindemith’s description of solitude as well (see my earlier post on Mathis der Maler).

Flippant/Sarcastic: This music is just fun. A jumbled mess. And yet, sarcasm never sounded so elegant. Perhaps woodwind instruments are the most sarcastic and flippant-sounding, as they seem to have the melodies in each of these clips.

Wonder: Stravinsky

Igor_StravinskyHere’s a mood-altering drug for you courtesy of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – it’s the introduction to the second act of The Rite of Spring. It’s today’s example of Emotion in Classical music, specifically awe and wonder. Even though The Rite of Spring was composed 100 years ago this year, it is still considered modern music because of how stretching it is to our ears and to any orchestra that attempts to perform it.

This movement is an introduction to a series of scenes at the end of which a young girl is sacrificed as an act of worship to the Earth by savages, but I could never latch on to that imagery. Instead, I imagine floating in the vacuum of space. Weightless, alone with the void of existence, pondering the vastness of the universe, and yet able to look back and see the body on which all of humanity lives in one gaze: the Earth. That is definitely an experience that gives one a sense of wonder.

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Stravinsky creates this sense of wonder through his use of harmony, or disharmony in this case. He uses a strange ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) that uses a tritone interval, which is one of the most dissonant intervals. Some police sirens, particularly in Europe, use a tritone interval because the dissonance is very attention-grabbing. Stravinsky also uses tone clusters; a very revolutionary idea for 1913. Tone clusters are similar to if a person were to take their palm and push down several notes on a piano at a time. This happens in the middle part of this clip, when the orchestra’s texture becomes thicker and louder.

John_WilliamsIntroduction: Sacrifice from The Rite of Spring is a great example of how Classical music can leave incredibly tangible impressions on listeners. John Williams was an admirer of Stravinsky because he clearly borrowed from him to describe the desolate landscapes of the planet Tatooine in his soundtrack to Star Wars Episode IV. Can you hear the similarities?

I plan to write a whole series on movie composers and the ways they borrow from Classical music to create a profound impact on their audiences. I believe those who enjoy these movie soundtracks secretly love Classical music, they just don’t know it yet.

Awe and Wonder: Ravel

Have you ever experienced something that overloaded your senses? Ever witnessed something that seemed to transcend human experience? That gave you a sense of awe or wonder? Classical music does that for me and it is the subject for this segment’s emotion in Classical music.

awe – noun – a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder

wonder – noun – a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable

ravelTake Gaspard De La Nuit by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for example. This impressionist piece for solo piano has three movements. The first movement alone is like an out of body experience. Impressionism is often like that because it doesn’t tend to depict reality, but more raw senses and emotion out of context. It is atmospheric rather than programmatic. Abstract rather than literal.

The first notes don’t sound like a piano playing, they sound like water trickling in the darkness from an unknown source. When the melody enters, it progresses as though unconfined to any particular key. It is hard to tell what this melody wants from us, as there is no tension and resolution like typical melodies and their accompanying harmonies. All we can tell is that the melody is becoming more insistent.

Benjamin Lacombe. Extraite de OndineThe subtitle of the first movement is Ondine, a mythical water fairy, and Gaspard De LaNuit is translated “treasurer of the night,” which in French is a reference to the devil. Again, the titles and references need not be taken literally in Impressionism. The feeling I get is being drawn in, seduced, and swept away on an unintended journey. I believe love can be like that, particularly divine love. There is awe at the vastness, gloriousness, and profundity of the character of God. This next clip depicts what it feels like to consent to this journey, follow the proverbial rabbit down the rabbit hole, and be blown away by the experience.

Part of my job here is to explain how Ravel has this effect on the listener, but I can’t. A simple explanation is that the music gets louder, the texture thickens (more notes, wider range), it builds by going up in pitch and then back down, and the melody uses a whole tone scale which has a mysterious sound because it doesn’t lead anywhere. But that explanation does not make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That’s why this music is so wondrous and awesome.

Sadness: Chopin

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Frederic_Chopin_photoTo wrap up the sadness and sorrow in my series on Emotion in Classical music, I thought I’d share with you Piano Prelude No. 4 in E Minor by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). By the way, his last name is pronounced “show-pan.” Just at little pet-peeve of mine.

Other than the guitar, the piano is my favorite solo instrument. It is amazing that the action of pushing down a key that operates a lever that pushes a hammer against two strings can sound so expressive. I have heard performances of music by Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann that make the piano sound like a full orchestra, or pieces by Claude Debussy that make it sound like a soft flute or a human voice. Or water trickling down a stream, or a thunderstorm, or beating heart. In Prelude No. 4, the piano sounds like sighing, or rain drops streaming down a nearby window.

There is pain in this piece but it is not as intense. It is more reflective. It feels like regretting a missed opportunity, remembering how great things used to be compared to now (the “good old days”), going to work when it’s your birthday, or perhaps remembering a loved one who is long gone. The melody and harmony give the listener a feeling of sinking, as they have a downward contour, going from the note A to E. There is a moment where our feelings are becoming more intense and less responsive to reason, as in the middle section with the fast, high notes, but that quickly returns to the dreary atmosphere in which it began. Just when the listener expects a resolution, Chopin surprises him with a false, or deceptive chord. To me, this represents the way one can not find a fitting resolution to feelings or regret or sorrow. In the end, it becomes tiring to dwell on it, which is where I believe the end of this prelude leaves us. What does this piece represent for you?

Deep space nebulaeChange in program: next week’s emotion will not be Loneliness/Isolation, it will be Awe/Wonder. I thought this would be fitting given the Christmas season. There are some great pieces I had planned to discuss in Loneliness and Isolation such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin, but that’ll have to come at another time. Merry Christmas!

Sadness: Whitacre

WhitacreEric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most popular composers, conductors, and clinicians today. He is very charismatic, tech-savvy, and has just received his first Grammy award. Be sure to check out his website where there are many amazing projects, such as his virtual choirs which are explained in his Ted Talk. While principally a composer of choral works, my favorite piece of his was written for band, or wind symphony as those in the profession call it.

October by Eric Whitacre is today’s piece of Classical music that expresses sadness. Here is what the composer has to say about the piece:

October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.

I share Whitacre’s sentiments, but I would add that to me, the piece expresses a sad, emptiness. Listen to the couple of clarinets accompanying the oboe soloist.

It seems as though the oboe is calling out for comfort, a kind word, love or acceptance. As I hear this part, I do imagine a pastoral scene where I am in the middle of a field of wheat, completely alone without a soul in sight. The scene has a chilling beauty to it, as though it would make me happy if only I had someone to share it with.

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Soloists often express human emotion the most tangibly. There are two oboe solos in this piece and a rare euphonium solo as well. If you are not familiar, a euphonium is a low brass instrument with roughly the same range as a trombone. However, it has valves like a tuba and has a bell that faces up instead of forward. It tends to have a sweeter, more muted sound than the trombone. The University of North Texas, where I received my masters degree, has the only full-time euphonium professor, Brian Bowman. I gained a new appreciation for the instrument during my time there, being surrounded by so many great euphonium players.

I confess that it is difficult to listen to this piece without shedding tears. Even when I heard it for the first time in high school, I cried. And high school-age boys are not supposed to cry. I suppose I couldn’t help it, as there are some sections that express the heaving kind of crying, weeping, or sobbing. It seems that waves of emotion come over the listener during some sections, such as this one:

While the piece does end on a strong major chord, it is only after a long emotional journey. The feeling the listener is left with by Whitacre is one of a greater appreciation and greater affection for that which is important in life. This is perhaps the chief utility of negative emotions like sadness and sorrow: to give us a better perspective on the good. Thanks, Eric.

Somber: Beethoven

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven‘s (1770-1827) Symphony No. 7 is one of the happiest works I’ve heard. It has a contagious, dance-like quality. That is, every movement except movement II: Allegretto. Allegretto is Italian for “a little lively” which must only refer to the tempo and not the mood, which is much more serious, sober, solemn, even somber. There is a pensiveness, as though anticipating something terrible will happen. I can not help but think this symphony deals with the existentialism that most of us face. We spend most of our time trying to seize the day (movements I, III and IV), but some of the time we ponder the inevitability of our own death (movement II).

somber – adjective

1. dark or dull in color or tone; gloomy
2. oppressively solemn or sober in mood; grave

The movement begins with one minor chord in the woodwinds, as if to warn us there is something ominous on the horizon. What follows is an ostinato in the strings. Ostinato literally means “obstinate” and refers to a rhythmic pattern that is repeated over and over. In this case, it is the “dun dun-dun dun dun” in the first violins. It is the same rhythm as a slow “shave and a hair cut.”

The tension builds and builds in this movement as more voices are added. Drums and brass in Beethoven’s day served roughly the same purpose: to add rhythmic intensity and punctuation to the orchestra. The ranges also expand as the movement builds. The low instruments play lower and the high instruments play higher. As the music broadens, the oppression is thick enough to cut with a knife. It seems that doom is eminent.

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It is at this moment that Beethoven keeps us guessing. He modulates from minor key to the  parallel major key. It goes from sad to happy. It is as though the listener could imagine a positive outcome for just a moment. There is always hope. This adds more suspense for me, because it is not certain how things will turn out. He does this again after another climactic section. Even in the last few seconds, he brings us just a glimmer of hope before ending with a sigh of resignation.

This movement was recently given a lot of exposure when it appeared at the climax of the movie, The King’s Speech (2010). It is played during the first wartime radio broadcast given by newly-crowned King George VI. I thought it appropriate to follow my last post regarding World War I with the music set to a movie on the outbreak of World War II. Below is the transcript of that speech, and you may hear the actual recording of it here. It was truly a great speech.

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.

It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges; which sanctions the use of force, or threat of force, against the sovereignty and independence of other states. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.

This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.

It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.

May He bless and keep us all.

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Disillusionment: Elgar

Imagine you are living in England in 1919. You are in your early sixties and have just had your entire world-view turned upside down over the past four years. Nine million people have just been killed in the deadliest conflict the world had ever known, World War I. You live in Sussex just across the English Channel from France where artillery fire can be heard for months at a time. While you’ve had a successful career, your compositions are becoming less and less popular. Your music is labeled “old” and “plain.” On top of that, you’ve just had an infected tonsil removed (a very dangerous operation at the time) and your wife of 31 years is about to die from lung cancer. You wake up from surgery in a daze, and as you recover, you write down a melody that just about sums it all up.

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These were Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) circumstances when composing his Cello Concerto in E Minor. Listen to the opening of the piece performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Edward_Elgar,_posing_for_the_camera_(1931)The raw emotion is apparent from the first notes of this piece. Typically, concertos have an orchestral introduction before the soloist plays. In this case, it is the soloist who introduces the orchestra. It is also uncommon for the soloist to play with great difficulty in the first passages, but the first notes in Elgar’s Cello Concerto are very hard to play. This adds to the drama and tension. Here the cellist is playing triple stops, a technique where the player bows three strings at a time, while placing his fingers in the exact right spot on each string he’s bowing. Getting the tuning and volume to balance between the strings takes years, even decades to master.

This next clip conveys a great sense of loss. It could represent the death of an ideal or the realization that a certain reality we’ve come to rely on was actually an illusion. Perhaps your faith in humanity, or the goodness of God, or the love of a close one has been broken. All that is left is disillusionment and anger. Elgar captures these in the tone quality of the cello, which is not unlike the sound of the human voice. The minor key, the slower, solemn melody, and the dominance of the low instruments in the texture give the listener the message of sadness.

The process of publishing and premiering this concerto must have created disillusionment for Elgar in itself. The piece was rumored to be badly rehearsed and the first performance was a failure. It was not until the 1960s that the piece gained widespread popularity. Now it is an essential part of the literature that every serious cellist studies and performs.

All four movements of the concerto are worth hearing. Enjoy!