Dwelling on the past: Piano Concerto No. 2

The challenge for composers when writing the final movement of a concerto is to wrap up the piece by bringing back themes from previous movements, introducing something new, showing off the soloist’s technical ability, and by leaving the listener with a distinct message. It could be one of disillusionment, satisfaction, joy, even excitement. Often, I imagine the composer thinking, Ok, I’ve said all I want to say. Now for a bit of fun.

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The final movement of a symphony or concerto is often the most difficult for listeners when it comes to finding meaning. There is no easy answer to the question: “what is the composer saying here?” Final movements are often the least cohesive and can jump around between different sentiments. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3 begins with an almost comic interlude. This, after ending an incredibly delicate, emotional second movement, seems to snap us out of a trance and bring us back down to earth where time is ticking again. In the first half of the clip below the feeling is light and comical, but it quickly morphs into anxiety. And time seems to be ticking faster.

While listening to this movement, I imagine that I have just awaken from the most sweet dream (movement 2) and now I must act quickly to make that dream a reality, or it will be lost forever. Much of this movement feels frantic. Of course, Rachmaninov takes this opportunity to write an insane run in the left hand that is mind-blowing to me still, after dozens of hearings. It is hard to believe that just ten fingers are producing that many notes.

1zhY8The new theme that is introduced is reminiscent of the slower, sweeter theme of the second movement. There is something about the way this melody sounds that reminds me of a romanticized Middle East, like in the movies. Like a bright, wide-open landscape with golden sand shimmering in the sun. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?

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The remaining clips I’ll share convey the sense of longing that Rachmaninov comes back to again and again. It is the near obsession, the intense longing for something or someone who may only exist in dreaming. It is the longing for a happier, better reality than the one we currently find ourselves in. It grows more intense as the movement progresses. First we find it in the piano, then with greater intensity and dissonance with the full orchestra.

Sometimes I think Rachmaninov never really gets past the second movement in this concerto. It seems to be the climax of the concerto, and because it is such a masterpiece, it seems that anything he could have written after would exist in the shadow of it. Though this is my least favorite of the three movements, it is still worth a listen because of the raw virtuosity of the pianist and the closure that finally does come at the end.

Up next: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’ll be a wild ride.

Love and loss: Piano Concerto No. 2

Beach-Candlelight-Dinner

What comes to mind when you think of Romantic music? An intimate, candle-lit dinner with a violinist serenading you while you eat? You are not alone in thinking this because music from the Romantic Era of Western Music History (1815-1910) contains the bulk of pieces that characterize romantic love.

kinopoisk.ruRomantic era composers, such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), have a flair for the dramatic. Their themes often depict the supernatural, nature, medieval chivalry, extreme subjectivity, emotionalism, nationalism, and love gained and love lost. Just think of a Leo Tolstoy novel like Anna Karinena which was recently popularized in the 2012 motion picture starring Keira Knightley. The settings for that novel and the composition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are similar. They both take place in czarist Russia in the late 19th century.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the most dramatic, meaningful, touching, beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. When I hear the opening theme from the first movement, Moderato, I imagine a harsh Russian winter. The sense of longing in this clip is universal – a longing to feel warm and comforted.

The second theme in this movement is a surprise because of how delicate and lyrical it is. The orchestra is silent while the piano soloist expresses its most deep, intimate sentiments. What do you long for? What makes you think, “if only I had this one thing, then all of the worries and heartache in my life would be over”? The listener may breathe a sigh of relief just listening to this clip, imagining that his longing for satisfaction was fulfilled.

I love how unpredictable Rachmaninov can be. He takes us on a grand emotional journey, often a roller-coaster, around corners we’d never expect. One moment we’re floating on clouds, feeling completely relaxed and peaceful; the next moment we’re bubbling with excitement and wonder. Listen for the slow tempo with the soft, smooth style at first which breaks away to fast 16th notes in the piano and a more detached style.

At the climax of Moderato, the feeling of longing gives way to desperation, becoming louder, higher in pitch, and increasingly dissonant. When the first theme of this movement comes back, it signals a kind of dramatic resignation. All hopes have been dashed.

“Dashed hopes” – Lady Mary on the PBS drama, Downton Abbey

The outro, or coda, takes us from resignation to disillusionment followed closely by anger. The music mocks, “How could you have longed for that? Did you really think things would turn out that well?” The cellos play just the first half of the lyrical second theme, but this time it has a more sarcastic feel and in a minor key instead of a major key. The anger is signified by the accented piano on the lower notes played by the left hand, a gradually increasing tempo (musical term is accelerando), and an ending in a minor key that seems to communicate that this movement simply could not be over fast enough!

If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned. The adagio movement is coming up next and is filled with some of the most beautiful stuff yet. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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.

Fear of Oppression: Shostakovich

The music of Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is extremely emotional given the context in which it was composed. Shostakovich lived in Russia under the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin until Stalin’s death in 1953. He was constantly under threat of imprisonment or death if his music didn’t align with the Communist propaganda. In fact, after World War II ended, many of the Russian bourgeoisie were rounded up and imprisoned and eventually executed. Many Russian composers faced this and many works were censured. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, which commemorated the victory, was deemed inappropriate and didn’t support state values, so it was censured by Stalin.

Shostakovich didn’t write another symphony for 7 years. Finally, after Stalin’s death in 1953, he premiered his 10th symphony. It is widely believed that the second movement of this piece was a portrait of Stalin. After all, the man was responsible for more than 20 million deaths of his own people by starvation, execution, imprisonment, and exile.

This movement has a biting, sinister character. The clip above is the opening of Symphony No. 10, Mvt 2. The oboe melody that is transferred to viola is in a minor key at a fast tempo, invoking aggression. This next clip has the same melody in augmentation, meaning the melody is played much slower. Because it is played by the trombones and tuba, it sounds even more oppressive. In this clip, I imagine the low brass representing state police rounding up peasants, bourgeoisie, or religious leaders (represented by the high strings and woodwinds) and shooting them on site or loading them into trains to be exiled to Siberia. Shostakovich’s music accurately captures the emotions of the Russian people who lived under the terror of Stalin.

Thanks for reading my posts on this week’s emotion: fear & anxiety. Next week: serene contentment.

Fear of Evil: Nelson

Have you ever seen a scary movie where you didn’t get to see the antagonist until the very end? I mean where there is an ominous, slow-moving threat of evil, signs of evil, and great suspense, but the real evil simply doesn’t show itself. I would say that this kind of evil – an unknown evil – is the kind most feared.

 

That kind of evil is portrayed in Ron Nelson’s (b. 1929) Passacaglia. Though this is a “Classical” music blog, I have included any instrumental and vocal music that popular culture would fit into that genre, however diverse. For example, this piece was written for band in 1993, the year of Nelson’s retirement. It is performed in this recording by the Dallas Wind Symphony, one of the few professional wind ensembles in the country. Here is an excerpt from Ron Nelson’s program notes:

Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) is a set of continuous variations in moderately slow triple meter built on an eight-measure melody (basso ostinato) which is stated, in various registers, twenty-five times. It is a seamless series of tableux which move from darkness to light.

Ok, this is why popular culture doesn’t get Classical music. Because the people in the profession are speaking music-ese. Let me translate:

Passacaglia is a melody played by low instruments at a moderately slow speed, over and over again, 25 times in all. As the melody is repeated, it sounds different each time as it is passed from instrument to instrument. It characterizes a series of scenes that move from darkness to light.

To me, it is the evil that moves from darkness to light. It starts more calm, tranquil, like it is under water, peaks its head out for a moment, and then submerges again. Can you hear the “basso ostinato” in the low instruments in this clip followed by variations played by the upper woodwind instruments?

As light takes over in the next clip, our enemy here gets more overt and intense – bent upon our destruction. The brass section in the band is playing full-blast power chords, the drums are going, the woodwinds are playing fast sixteenth notes, and the trumpets are double-tonguing. When brass players double tongue, it is because the notes are too fast to play the way they normally do, so they have to use a special, difficult technique called double tonguing. Flutes can do this also.

Can you think of any books or movies for which Passacaglia would make a fitting soundtrack?

 

Anxiety never stops: Barber

The last movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto portrays nervous anxiety, even panic. The title of the movement, “presto in moto perpetuo” translates “very fast perpetual motion.” It’s like riding a wild roller coaster with no hope of getting off. The violinist literally plays fast sixteenth notes (4 notes per beat, 170 beats per minute (BPM), that’s like 10 notes per second) the whole movement. Four minutes straight. In order to achieve this, the performer must practice the sections over and over again at a slow tempo and work his way up to 170 BPM. This can take dozens, even hundreds of hours to perfect the way the violinist in this clip has.

The fast-moving action in this piece reminds me of a great chase scene out of a movie. Actually, the music sounds similar to the soundtrack from one of the recent Harry Potter movies. The feel is chaotic, frantic, dissonant, high, fast and loud. You can even hear the horns in this clip sounding the hunt, just as they did for centuries in Western Europe. This  is the last 30 seconds at the climax:

How does Barber illicit such a visceral reaction? The fast, perpetually moving notes is one effect, but so is the near atonality of the violin part. Atonality is just as it sounds: an absence of tonality. This means the violin isn’t really sticking to the 8-note scale of a key. Instead, it is playing any one of a 12-note scale at any time. This confuses our ears because we don’t know where the music is headed. Music is the most dissonant when it is atonal. The notes are not random by any means, and if the music were slower, we could probably discern a recognizable, though dissonant melody. But in this case, you won’t be humming this piece later today. It is the feel of chaos and frantic anxiety that sticks with you. But hopefully the excitement of the chase does, too!

Fear after death: Mozart

If you have not taken the time to listen to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor (K. 626), then you have missed out. This is perhaps one of the most profound choral and orchestral works of Classical music. You can get a copy on iTunes or Amazon for $8-10 (click the links to be taken to my recommended recording on each site). Also, if you have seen the movie Amadeus, this clip is described in detail in a scene when Mozart is in his own death bed.

Today’s example of fear and anxiety is a little more vivid. Not only does Mozart share with us the angst of imminent death, but he deals with our fears surrounding death. What will happen to me when I die? Will I go to heaven or hell? Will I really rest in peace? What will dying feel like?

The text and setting to music from today’s clip answers these questions from Mozart’s perspective. The text from the third sequence, Confutatis, is translated from the original Latin below:

When the accused are confounded,
and doomed to flames of woe,
call me among the blessed.
I kneel with submissive heart,
my contrition is like ashes,
help me in my final condition.

The first part of Confutatis definitely conveys these things with disturbing accuracy. What feelings come to mind when you read these words? Accusation. Confounded. Doom. Flames. Woe. The music is in a minor key with a fast tempo, brass, drums, fiery strings, and heavy male vocals.

The second half of this clip portrays a submissive heart and contrition with floating, female voices, major chords, a slow tempo, and a light, meandering string part. Anxiety often spurs conflicting emotions which are captured beautifully in these contrasting sections.

The male and female voices go back and fourth another time before there seems to be a conclusion with a minor chord. Mozart isn’t satisfied with this however, and begins a string of key changes with a diminished chord. In the Classical era, the use of a diminished chord was the most dissonant and tense music ever sounded. Also, it is important to note that each key change lands us in a lower and lower key. It is an inescapable sinking feeling.

To me, this is a portrayal of what it is actually like to die. Pass on. Cross over. It seems the prayer is answered in the music, “Help me in my final condition.” Though there is tension in the diminished chords and key changes, the mood is tranquil and peaceful. It is clear that God is helping this transition for the subject of this Mass.

Well, so much for being quick and concise. Perhaps next time I should pick music that isn’t so enthralling.

Fear of Death: Rachmaninov

The emotions for this week’s Classical music picks are fear and anxiety. The second movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances expresses both very elegantly.

fear |fi(ə)r| – noun – an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat

anxiety |aNGˈzī-itē| – noun ( pl. anxieties ) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was well-known for his fixation on death. If you were to listen to all of his works, you’d find that he used melodies associated with the subject in a large percentage of them. The main melody that can be found over and over in his compositions is the dies irae theme, meaning “day of wrath.” Wiki has a great article on this that includes an audio clip of dies irae in its original form.

Symphonic Dances is about a fear of death and its accompanying anxiety. Death is both imminent and uncertain to most, regardless of religious belief. Rachmaninov addresses this in the most elegant, stylized way. His music has a gothic feel. It reminds me of gothic spires on medieval churches, gargoyles, and Halloween.

This clip demonstrates a growing anxiety turning into outright fear. The piece up until this point expresses much brooding and anticipation. The meter of this piece is 3 beats in a measure, but it is a quick 3, suggesting a waltz. It’s very grotesque to waltz to death music, wouldn’t you say?

This section also demonstrates fear by using dissonance. Dissonance happens when we hear notes that are not normally in the key, or when the key in which the composer is writing shifts unexpectedly. This throws off our expectations as listeners and makes us feel uneasy. As the music gets louder and faster, the intensity builds and the immediate danger is clear.

Fear of death, gargoyles, or goths (I was in high school) is normal. In fact, I would say that our culture is largely based upon fear. Classical music has a way of dealing with and processing through fear and anxiety. If I’m not feeling fearful, then listening to this music is exciting, like seeing a suspenseful movie. If I am feeling fearful, then it gives a name and a face to the emotion, helping me understand and overcome it. Try it sometime.

Emotion in Classical music

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.” – Michael Tilson Thomas

At heart, I believe that Classical music isn’t just for everyone, but it is for everything. There is Classical music for every occasion: working, relaxing, eating, drinking, watching a movie (most are orchestral scores), studying, dating, breaking up, getting married, fighting, dying, dreaming, praying, laughing, mourning…you get the idea. Songza has developed an excellent, Pandora-style radio that is meant to play music for every occasion. I would love to see a version within the Classical music genre.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ quote (above) speaks about the nature of our humanity. Our wide spectrum of emotions is something that makes us uniquely human. Over the course of history, we have turned to music to express emotions because our more left-brained forms of communication were insufficient. Classical music has expressed these emotions to a much greater extent than any other musical genre. I would argue that it has also expressed these emotions more deeply and completely than any other genre. But this is a matter of personal taste, of course.

I have chosen to advocate for Classical music because it possesses deep, personal meaning to me. Very personal. It isn’t the product of a bunch of dead white guys as popular culture would characterize it. Its meaning is simply not obvious to most because there are no words in orchestral music. The composer allows the listener to hear critically, to ask “what is this music saying? What does it express? What is the mood of this section? How does this make me feel? What images come to mind? For which experience in my life could this music serve as a soundtrack? Or for which daily activity?” I also hope to answer, “How does the composer achieve this emotional effect?”

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion (1980)

In the coming weeks, I hope to show you just how much Classical music is personally meaningful, one emotion at a time. I have chosen eight emotions based on this wiki article to write about, one emotion per week. For each emotion, I will explore one representative piece per day, five or six days per week. Here are the emotions I hope to cover:

  • fear/anxiety
  • serene/content
  • anger/fury
  • longing/love/passion
  • elation/joviality
  • sadness/sorrow
  • loneliness/isolation
  • flippant/sarcastic

On a personal note, this series is meant to exercise my writing muscles and develop consistency. I am purposely giving myself very little time to write each post so there will be no room for my perfectionist tendencies. Wish me luck! This week: fear & anxiety. Enjoy!