Rossini with the Denver Pops Orchestra

I finally got around to posting this video of my performance with the Denver Pops Orchestra last October. It is better than I remembered. Not a technically perfect performance, but I think it has enough character and flash to compensate for any minor errors. To quote the great Ludwig van Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play with out passion is inexcusable.”

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I’ve stayed pretty busy the last several months. I worked with a local high school marching band last fall that made finals in the state marching band competition, I launched a new website for the Denver Pops Orchestra (visit it here), and I became an affiliate faculty clarinet teacher at a private Christian college, also nearby.

I’m feeling inspired to write again but I’m not sure where I will find the time. I have so many unrealized ideas to explore on this publication and I am tempted to stay up late a couple evenings per week to flesh them out. Wish me luck. And feel free to post your feedback on the video, too.

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.

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!

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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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!

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.

Simple contentment: Larsson

Today’s clip depicting contentment comes from Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). The title, Pastoral, is indicative of a lifestyle in the countryside herding animals and living simply. Art, literature, and music have characterized it for centuries. Famous examples of this are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. If you’ve never heard these pieces, I recommend them. Much too charming to pass up.

I have often heard that the people who live the most fulfilling lives live the most simple ones. That is captured in Larsson’s Pastoral. The flute solo in the beginning of this clip has a playful innocence that, when joined with the warmth of the strings, is absolutely delightful. Larsson helps us feel at ease with simple melodies and harmonies, major chords, and a softer dynamic. There is very little dissonance, and when there is, it is to foster an even greater relaxed feeling. It is hard to feel anything but content when listening to this music. Enjoy!

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Angelic Concert

Ever thought about angels? Do you like art from the Renaissance? How about hiking? If yes, then you can relate to this piece.

Paul Hindemith was born in Germany in the late 1800s and lived and composed through two world wars. Mathis der Maler (translated Matthias the Painter) was an opera about the life of a painter. The opera was composed during the time Nazis came to power in Germany and was suppressed by the party. There are some interesting details about this in this wiki article.

Hindemith composed a purely instrumental symphony based on themes in the opera. The three movements in this symphony capture the essence of Matthias Grunewald’s Renaissance era paintings, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515). This is another example of art inspiring art.

The Angelic Concert is on the second view of the altarpiece. The detail is incredible. You can hear the various depictions of angels and their instruments in the music from the very beginning of the movement. Here are two examples:

In the first example, it is the shimmering major chords that seem to reflect a powerful, yet innocent angelic beauty. In the second half of this example, it is the violins playing very high in the background that reminds me of angels.

Other than those examples, this piece reminds me of hiking. The first couple of measures reminds me of waking up at dawn, getting out of bed, eating a modest breakfast, and going out the door before it gets too hot. Everything is still, quiet, and dark.

What follows are a series of sights one may encounter on a hiking trail from trees, birds, streams, water falls, large and small rocks, and wind in the trees to feeling tired, taking a break, or snapping some quick photographs. Something I love about Hindemith is the way his music always moves forward and upward. Listen to the unison strings keeping time and going higher in pitch in the background behind the trombone and horn melody:

Some of my favorite parts of hiking, especially in the mountains, is when I’ve hiked long enough to get above some trees and see my first scenic view. It is both majestic and breath-taking. On our hike through this music, I imagine that the sun is coming up on the horizon just as we reach the clearing:

Hindemith takes us on several bunny trails until we reach the top of the mountain. The powerful brass at the end of this movement reflect the power I feel in my body having conquered the long hike and made it to the top. There is an even greater majesty and feeling of satisfaction as we out and down on the landscape, perhaps seeing the trail we’ve just hiked hundreds of feet below. It is such a satisfying moment after the degree of uncertainty in parts of the music where it didn’t seem like we would make it. In short, it’s literally a mountaintop experience!

I love Hindemith’s use of power chords in this clip. While most chord progressions move in intervals of a second, fourth, or fifth, these power chords are a third apart. This kind of chord progression adds intrigue because it is not the typical way Western Classical music functions. You would never hear Beethoven or Mozart use chords of this kind because their resolution is a surprise. Beethoven, for example, does the opposite: he spends the length of his pieces building tension by taking you to a home he describes, but one at which you don’t arrive until you’ve anticipated it for several minutes. The ending here feels like a surprise, harmonically. To me, that is what makes it so interesting. I will be sure to give more examples of the surprises composers write into their music. Hindemith wasn’t the only one.

Keeping Score

I am getting closer to writing my first post about one of my favorite works of orchestral music: Barber’s Symphony No. 1.

Before I do, I have a quick influence I’d like to mention: the PBS miniseries Keeping Score. Again featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, Keeping Score is a show on PBS with 55-minute episodes that are spent analyzing works of classical music. There are 8 episodes so far that span 3 seasons, and the first six episodes are available from iTunes. You can buy all six for $8.99 or each episode for $1.99. Here is a list of the works discussed:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Copeland: various
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Ives: Holidays Symphony
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

In these episodes, MTT shows the viewer the historical significance of each work and they it was so revolutionary. He actually visits many of the settings in which the work was written, performed, and places it influenced. The scenes often cut back to the San Francisco Symphony performing each piece to illustrate the point MTT made. I enjoy the fact that in many of the episodes we get the performer’s take on the music. For example, orchestra members speak to what it meant to live in soviet Russia during the time Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 or what it was like to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

If you only watch one episode, for $1.99 I recommend the Rite of Spring episode. This is another work similar to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that displays the full range of what a symphony orchestra is capable of. If you have heard this piece before and thought it strange and inaccessible, watch this episode and you will be sure to change your mind.

Fantasia and imagination

I turned 16 years old on January 1, 2000 – Y2K. While many people were huddled in their bomb shelters at home surrounded by months of non-perishable food stuffs due to the Y2K scare, my family and I went to the local IMAX theater to see Disney’s Fantasia 2000. This event changed my life.

Fantasia is another form of music in motion. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski teamed up to select seven orchestral works that were animated for the movie theater. Some of these animations were abstract, some depicted real stories with characters, and some featured Disney characters, such as Mickey in the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. It was released in 1940 and was to be the first of an on going series of Classical music pieces set to animation that would rotate in and out of the theater. No pieces were added, but Fantasia was re-released in theatres again in 1985 and it was remastered for a 1990 release for VHS as well.

Roy Disney, producer of Fantasia 2000

Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) used the profits from the re-release of Fantasia to produce Fantasia 2000. While the original Fantasia used many new animation techniques and “Fantasound,” one of the first multi-channel recording systems, Fantasia 2000 used many new techniques as well. Most notable among them were IMAX technology and computer animation. The commentary and special features on the DVD are fascinating.

For this new Fantasia, Roy Disney teamed with James Levine to select these eight pieces:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 1 (shortened version)
*Respighi: The Pines of Rome, Mvts 1, 3 & 4 (shortened versions)
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro
Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals, Finale (shortened version)
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Grieg: Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1-4
*Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts. 4-7

*Works I’d like to discuss on this blog in detail.

Here is the official movie trailer:

This film demonstrates something I call “mutual inspiration.” When art media are crossed, such as Classical music and animation (visual art), the artists from both sides may be inspired by one another. Many of the animators for Fantasia 2000 noted that they chose to pursue a career in animation because they had watched the original Fantasia and saw how the music could inspire great visual art. I pursued a career in music in part because of how exciting Classical music became when I learned to use my imagination and picture in my mind what the music was depicting. Disney’s achievement in this film was his use of animation to enhance the tangible emotions found in Classical music.

In future posts, I want to explore the way Classical music expresses emotions in ways that few other art forms can. One possible format is to pick one emotion per week and choose a different piece each day that expresses that emotion in a profound way. Emotions may include anger, rage, fear/suspense, ecstasy, peace/tranquility, and the various emotions wrapped up in love.

Getting back on topic, Fantasia 2000 is an influence because it demonstrates the great potential of human imagination in relation to Classical music. Between the two Fantasias, 15 pieces were animated out of the thousands of powerful, inspiring works the genre has to offer. This is not to mention the thousands of ways these pieces could be animated.

In my experience, it is impossible to enjoy Classical music without using my imagination and developing specific images, ideas, or characters in my mind. To me, the music has no meaning if it does not speak to some part of human experience, including my specific memories: love gained, love lost or love missed, elation in success or depression in failure, innocence or the loss of it, loneliness, personal intimacy, and divine transcendence.

Get it? Use you imagination!

Here is a quote from my next topic, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra:

“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