Sorrow: Barber

griefPain. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief. These are sentiments that are expressed most poignantly by almost every musical genre. I think people turn to music because sorrow is such an intense emotion, it is difficult to process. Sometimes it isn’t enough to cry, sob, lay in bed for hours, or explain the feeling of sorrow in words. We must listen to, write, or perform a piece of music to reflect our deepest feelings. For me, music can bring about a certain clarity and can help me ride the waves of emotion instead of let them crash over me.

There is a lot of very sad Classical music. In his Ted Talk, Benjamin Zander discussed how Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor helped an unlikely audience member mourn the death of his brother for the first time. Until then, he was unable to cry for his brother. It is on this emotion that Classical music probably speaks to the most number of people.

Samuel BarberAdagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of the saddest, most beautiful, cathartic pieces I know. Composed in 1938, Adagio for Strings has appeared in at least 10 movies, many TV shows, and even video games. Its very simple form, harmony, and instrumentation (just violin, viola, cello and bass) make it a piece that is very easy to connect with. It is a great meditation piece because it is the same melody repeated over and over, just with changing texture and dynamics. In musical terms, texture is how many instruments are playing at once. In this piece, sometimes it is just the first violins, or just the violas that are playing at a time. The first note, for example, features just a few violin players.

This brings about a sense of vulnerability and anticipation. The listener may subconsciously think, “if there is only one note and no harmony, how will I know if the piece is happy or sad, or how it will end?” The form of the piece is an arch, with the dynamic getting louder to the point of climax, then dying down to a sleepy resignation. It is perhaps reflective of the last two stages of grief cycle, from depression to acceptance. There may be some anger and bargaining in there as well, especially during the climax section. As the emotions get more intense, the music becomes louder, the strings change the direction of their bows more abruptly, and there is clearly a feeling of anger and asking “why?”

I’ve always been struck that this piece ends on a major chord, but it is not the one we expect. But aren’t major chords supposed to make us feel happy? Well this one doesn’t!

The musical term for this is half cadence. Here’s a simple harmony lesson: every chord in a chord progression is numbered, from 1 to 7, depending on which notes it has in it. Many chord progressions will use a one chord, then a four chord, then a five chord, and then go back to the one chord. The five chord has notes in it that make us want to hear the one chord again. If we don’t hear the one chord again, it can be a little disturbing. Well that is just what Samuel Barber did to us on this last chord. It signifies something very important: that even though we can express and process through our sorrow, it may never fully go away.

I am so happy to be writing again after moving my family to another state over the last couple months. After sadness/sorrow, there are two more emotions I’d like to discuss and then I’ll move on. I’m glad you’re here reading and (hopefully) leaving comments.

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Euphoria: Glinka

Euphoric baby

Today’s clip goes beyond elation or joy. The most fitting word is

euphoria |yo͞oˈfôrēə| – noun – a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

The exuberance in Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is very contagious. It is hard for me to listen to this music and think anything but positive thoughts. This piece is all about seizing the day, the thrill of the chase, zeal for life, and gusto. Listening to this piece makes me feel like I could do anything. It reminds me of how much life is an adventure just waiting to happen.

A not-so-euphoric Glinka

It is hard to imagine the man from this portrait writing such euphoric music, but of course his music displays a wide variety of emotions. Glinka is often referred to as the “Russian father of Classical music.” He came before most of the major Russian composers you may have heard of like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsokov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.

The Russian style of Classical music has always been one of great intensity, grandeur, and virtuosity. It is the opposite of subtle and can be over-stated. The Russian style is like the William Shatner of Classical music. It’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard but sometimes it’s a bit much.

Anyway, this overture is no exception. According to my Apple dictionary, an overture is simply “an introduction to something more substantial.” This definition is quite ironic considering overtures can be quite substantial themselves. Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila begins with a bang with the whole orchestra playing at once: drums, strings, woodwinds and brass. This acts as a spring board to launch the string section high into the air with their sixteenth-note runs.

This happens a second time before sending the strings into a frenzy of notes reaching up into the highest parts of their range. Though they may sound incredibly virtuosic, these kinds of sixteenth-note runs can be quite easy to play. Classical musicians spend much of their time practicing scales, which is all these runs consist of. As long as the runs do not skip a note or two or are in a difficult key, the average professional Classical musician should have no problems with them. Here is a recording from one of my clarinet recitals playing the finale from Sonata for Clarinet by Camille Saint-Saens. Enjoy!

Elation: Adams

Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams (b. 1947) is a piece that both expresses elation and makes me elated when listening. It is what I call “go music.” There is so much energy, optimism, brilliance and character, I can’t help but feel invigorated.

John Adams is a minimalist composer. Most people think that minimalism has no melody and simply repeats over and over again. This is not true. Minimalism has a long melody over time that doesn’t stay the same, it is always different. Always evolving.

You’ll notice that in this first clip, everything starts on the beat with the wood block: the fast clarinet notes, the trumpets, and the trombones. But as things evolve, they get off the beat and become more and more syncopated. It reminds me of dancing.

A few minutes in, there is someone who enters the dance who doesn’t want to do it the same way. Perhaps an older, heavy man who doesn’t enjoy it as much. The rhythm in this clip still has the wood block and the eighth-note motor in the strings, but the basses and tubas play a a rhythm that is slower and disjointed from the rest. This is a phenomenon known as polyrhythm. The effect on the listener is the same as if she were to pat her head and rub her stomach. You actually have to think and be engaged to listen to this kind of music.

Joy & elation: Beethoven

joy |joi| – noun – a feeling of great pleasure and happiness

elation |iˈlāSHən| – noun – great happiness and exhilaration

When I thought about which words I would use to describe this week’s emotion in Classical music, happiness didn’t seem to cut it. The music I’ve selected is not just happy, it is exhilarating. It expresses great pleasure and excitement. It brings to mind some of my most wonderful memories.

Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” expresses sheer delight throughout the symphony. It is another great example of programmatic music where the music is written to tell a specific story. The subtitles of the five movements are as follows:

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
2. Scene at the brook
3. Happy gathering of country folk
4. Thunderstorm
5. Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

Of course for the sake of contrast, Beethoven had to put in that thunderstorm so we could better appreciate the happy moments.

Today’s clip is from the third movement. The happy gathering of country folk brings images of villagers dancing and being merry, children playing, and birds chirping. The whole atmosphere here is playful and carefree. The birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind.

Elation is depicted by a fast tempo (speed), major chords, and notes that are played in a staccato style (short, light and bouncy). The light, high, pure-sounding oboe is delightful. It reminds me of the sound of a person’s voice in a conversation who is expressing how excited she is to be reunited with her good friend at a party. The strings in the background represent the activity of the gathering with interjections by the bassoon and clarinet. Finally, the clarinet says back how delighted she is and seems to bubble over with joy. At the end of this clip, the horn joins the conversation and the excitement builds.

If you feel weighed down, I recommend listening to all of Symphony No. 6. It is incredibly therapeutic. It seems to characterize all that is good, right, innocent, and beautiful in the world. Happy Monday!

Longing: Massenet

Meditation from “Thais” is a piece for violin and orchestra played in between scenes in the tragic opera, Thais by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The story is about a monk who travels to Egypt in order to convert a woman, Thais, but falls in love with her in the process. After she converts and comes under the care of the church, the monk renounces his religion in favor of pursuing Thais romantically only to find her on her death bed from illness. I love a good tragedy, don’t you?

This piece is another great example of emotion in Classical music. The sound of the violin could not be sweeter or more passionate. The vibrato (fast wavering of pitch) in the violin is meant to sound like the natural human singing voice, making the violin one of the most personal and human-sounding instruments. I love the way this piece depicts both a romantic love and a heavenly, divine love. The melody in the second clip begins the same way as the first clip, but it then takes a turn toward a higher, more brilliant sentiment than before. As the strings crescendo (get louder) in the background and the key changes, it seems that we’ve arrived somewhere we didn’t expect: a pleasant surprise.

It is clear that romantic love, longing, and passion is one of the emotions that Classical music expresses best. For me, this music both creates longing and fulfills it at the same time. There are hundreds of selections I could have included in this series and I will be writing about many of them in the future. Stay tuned.

Next week: Elation and joy! 🙂

Longing: Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I feel a longing for love so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after six years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.

Longing for encouragement: Elgar

Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is a theme with a set of variations written about various people Elgar knew throughout his life. These people ranged from his wife, (variation 1) to his friend’s dog (variation 11) to a great friend and mentor (variation 9). It is variation number nine, entitled “Nimrod,” that expresses a great sense of longing. You may have heard this piece during the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

The names of these variations are meant to mask the person’s real identity, but in this case we know the real name is Augustus Jaeger, an older friend, critic, and a source of great encouragement for Elgar. It is said that when Elgar had many setbacks in his career, or felt depressed and thought about giving up composing, Jaeger was always there to encourage him to take heart and continue writing. Elgar reportedly stated that this movement is not so much of a portrait of Jaeger, but “a story of something that happened.”

I admire Elgar for writing a piece about people who have inspired and encouraged him. It sounds like a good exercise to sit down and write about those who have encouraged me over the years. This variation about the encouragement Edward Elgar received is in itself an encouragement to me. It helps me remember that I would not be the person I am today without the encouragement of my parents, my wife, my friends, clarinet teachers, and various other mentors in my life.

And that’s why I want to tell you about my friend, Jesus Christ.

Just kidding! You thought I was about to get preachy. But seriously, this work does remind me of Jesus. I was at a conference in college when I first heard Variation IX. It was the soundtrack to some powerful scenes from blockbuster movies. A word would appear on the screen, like “courage” and then it would show a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or it would say “true love” and would show the final scene from Sense and Sensibility. Finally, it said “sacrifice” and showed a scene from The Jesus Film with Jesus dying on the cross. I don’t remember the last slides, but the message was about the story of creation and how we have a God that loves us through it all. He has been a source of encouragement since I was very little and heard my first bits of Classical music. When I think about the way Jesus lived his life, the way he encourages me in dark places, and how he is so present in this moment the way this music is, I long for his goodness.

Instead of going into the musical reasons why this piece is so powerful, I have some homework: listen this piece in its entirety, with no distractions, and meditate on someone who has inspired you. Did anyone specific come to mind? Be encouraged and thankful for him or her, and let the longing you feel motivate you to continue doing all of the good things you do.

Love is complicated: Wagner

This weeks emotion in Classical music is love. I’m not sure if I agree with my Apple dictionary’s definition of love:

love |ləv| – noun – an intense feeling of deep affection

I’ve often heard that love isn’t an emotion because of how complex it is. For example, one can be in love but not feel loving. The thing is, love is complicated. It is risky, exposing one’s faults and true self to another. It is risky because when a person loves, she has more to lose. There is potential for loss in love. Loss of one’s sense of self or the loss of a lover. There is betrayal, the building and breaking trust, coping with loneliness during a loved one’s absence, and facing discontentment when a person doesn’t live up his promise and doesn’t ultimately satisfy the longing of the heart. Longing or desire is probably a more accurate term to describe this weeks music.

Imagine that you have dreamed of someone your whole life who would rescue you out of your bad situation and fall deeply in love with you. Let’s say you pray for this person to appear when you are falsely accused of something, and he does. This man, a knight, challenges your accuser and defeats him in a fight, driving him away. He then turns to you and declares his love and intention to marry you. This love seems pure, simple, and honest:

The problem is, you know very little about the person who you agreed to marry. This was the case for the character Elsa in the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Even though this knight insisted he was the real thing, Elsa could not help but feel uneasy about this decision. Nevertheless, the wedding was planned and Elsa was about to see her dreams come true right before her eyes. But she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she can’t trust this man, even during the scene right before the wedding, known as Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral. Though the harmony here sounds positive and celebratory, you can hear the tension and conflict in the music:

Wagner uses diminished chords and non-chord tones here to bring about dissonance which gives us a feeling of uneasiness. When the horns enter in this clip, it is almost startling how loud they are. It is like they are trying to force positive feelings upon us with their overconfidence. In the end, Elsa’s fears were confirmed when the knight’s true identity was revealed. He had only married Elsa to save her from her accuser. Elsa had married someone who turned out to be a stranger. He left her for his political career and Elsa died of a broken heart in the end. The famous wedding march, the one we all think of when we think of weddings, first appeared in Lohengrin in the scene after Elsa’s Procession. It is hard to believe that it has appeared in so many given the plot of the opera for which it was written!

Every genre of music writes about love, but only Classical music seems to capture the scope of emotions and complexity with any degree of elegance. The emotion that is most portrayed is longing. Longing to be loved, accepted, cared for, and to escape loneliness, worthlessness and death. That is something we all have in common, which is why I believe that Classical music is for everyone.

Fury: Stravinsky

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger
rage |rāj| – noun – violent, uncontrollable anger

As my final post on anger & fury, I chose the 5th movement from The Firebird Suite, entitled “The Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” by Igor Stravinsky. As you can see above, fury and rage have similar definitions. The idea of uncontrollable anger fits these clips. In the ballet, The Firebird, the main character, Prince Ivan, confronts King Kastchei and is attacked by the king’s magical creatures. The Firebird, who promised to help Ivan, puts the magical creatures under his spell and makes them do an “infernal dance.” It is a very intense scene.

The writers at Disney took the story a different direction. In Fantasia 2000, The Firebird is a creature that was awakened deep inside a volcano by a delicate fairy. The volcano erupts, spewing fire and ash as the Firebird pursues the fairy until catching it, swallowing it in fire and lava. The bird in this story has a rather demonic character and seems to be filled with pure rage. This was not the sort of anger that could be reasoned with. Here is the opening of the movement:

There are a number of musical reasons why this clip from The Firebird Suite sounds so furious. It opens with a loud, orchestral bang that can be startling. After that, there is a melody in the horns and tuba that is played off the beat instead of on the beat, like most melodies. This creates a jarring effect. The horns are playing in their low range, similar to the way they did in my earlier clip from Shostakovich 5, where they sounded downright mean. The melody is full of half-step intervals which create dissonance. There is no chord progression here – it is just a minor key pedal, as though you had hit a low note on the piano while pushing the pedal. It is sustained throughout the melody; suspended. Ever feel like time stands still when you’re angry? That is what is happening here harmonically. After the second orchestral bang, the horns jump up two octaves to their upper range. This is a composer’s trick to add intensity to any melody by taking it up an octave. But Stravinsky is an over-achiever by going up two octaves.

The end of this work becomes even more out of control as the notes get faster and faster, the trumpets play fast, double-tongued notes, the trombones glissando (slide in between notes), and the biggest orchestral bang slams the door on us.

I hope you enjoyed listening to this aggressive Classical music. There are many great compilations that have titles like “Classical Thunder” that portray these emotions to an even greater extent. Here are some other pieces that display fury and anger, to name only a few:

Rachmaninov: Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Op. 3/2, “The Bells Of Moscow” – #2 In C Sharp Minor
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: I The Adoration of the Earth: Young Girls’ Dances
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: II The Sacrifice: Glorification
Orff: O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
Verdi: Dies irae from Requiem Mass

Next week: Longing, love & passion.

Calculated anger: Beethoven

There is not a single song or piece that we listen to today that has not been influenced in some way by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He established and popularized the musical language that is used in all of today’s popular music, jazz, and the vast majority of symphonic music that came after him. As one of my history professors put it, “no composer since has ever started to write a piece without first considering the work of Beethoven.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has one of the most recognizable phrases in all of Classical music. While the first movement is the most well-known, the other three movements display a wide variety of characters and emotions which are all held together by just four notes.

Don’t you want to keep listening? Copyright laws only allow a 30 second clip for educational purposes, or I’d upload it all. Beethoven has a way of gripping us and not letting go until the end of the piece. I wish I had time to tell you everything that is interesting about this piece and how it would affect the way you listen to it. Talking about Beethoven is not easy because there is so much I could say and I have so little time. So instead, I will simply talk about the character of the piece as it relates to anger. The kind of anger displayed here is not a wild violent anger but it is a carefully calculated anger. A stubborn, indignant anger. The kind of anger that comes out of deep thought.

The intervals (distance) between pitches are important in this four-note melody (technically it is a “motive” since it is so short). The interval between the third and fourth notes is a major third – a very human interval. It is an interval that our voices naturally sing when saying two-syllable words. When a mother calls to her children in the back yard, “Din-ner!” she usually sings a major third. But in Beethoven’s case, it is a major third that functions on the upper side of a minor chord. With this tonal language, it seems that Beethoven is communicating that anger is a very human emotion.

Secondly, anger can bubble up out of nowhere, the way it does after the introduction. The strings play several fast notes at a soft dynamic, becoming more insistent when the orchestra rushes in and makes three hard blows to the stomach. The anger intensifies when the four-note motive comes back again with the horns blasting along side the strings.

The rest of the movement moves from angry thought to angry thought, as though the character in this movement is trying to reason himself out of being angry. I love the suspense, the contrast, and they way Beethoven takes these four notes and makes a masterpiece out of them. Sometimes I think Beethoven and MacGyver are a lot alike. MacGyver could take a stick, bubble gum and a lighter and make a deadly weapon and Beethoven can take four notes and make a dazzling symphony.

I hope you get a chance to listen to the entire symphony. It is worth every minute. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to Beethoven soon enough. And I still won’t have enough time to say all there is to say about his music.