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?

desert1

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.

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Life and Death: Symphonic Dances

0What do journalists and Classical composers have in common? They both love a good conflict. On news programs, especially the 24-hour cable networks, the stories are often about violence, terrorism, or war, and when they don’t report on that, they bring in two people with opposite views to debate current events. On the other hand, composers write about conflict in more abstract ways, depicting battle, or a struggle between two extremes, such as good versus evil, love versus hate, or life versus death.

In the case of the final movement from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the struggle depicted is life versus death. As you can hear from the clip above, the introduction of this movement is very tense, like the flurry of activity of soldiers before battle.

It is common for Romantic era composers to choose a melody or motif to represent a specific character or idea. German composer Richard Wagner was famous for this, and musicologists eventually named this technique leitmotif. In Rachmaninov’s case, there are two leitmotifs in this movement – one for death and one for life. The theme that depicts life was taken from Rachmaninov’s earlier choral work, Vespers, in which it characterized the resurrection of Christ. It would seem that it was modified from its original form to take on a more suspenseful, dance-like character for Symphonic Dances:

The theme Rachmaninov used to portray the idea of death is quoted from a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn called Dies Irae. It means day of wrath.

Dies Irae

The clip below plays it in two versions: the fast version played by the strings and a slower, more pure version played by the brass. The fast version modifies the rhythm and plays it twice as fast. The musical term for that rhythmic modification is known as diminution. Both of these represent death throughout the movement.

There comes a time in every conflict where the outcome must be decided, and such is the case during the climax of this movement. Rachmaninov employs the use of power chords in this section to drive home the level of intensity in the conflict between life and death. I have always loved the way this composer writes a very appealing passage and then takes is a step further. He writes 5 seconds of power chords and then modulates the key up a full step to add excitement. You may have to listen closely to the first half of this clip again to catch it.

Similar to movies where the hero gets beat up at first when fighting mano a mano with the villain, the same seems to be true here as the dies irae theme takes over in the second half of this clip played by French horns. This time the rhythm is played at half the speed of normal. Instead of diminution, where it is played twice as fast, playing at half speed is known as augmentation.

In the end, though, Rachmaninov picks life over death. He wrote on the subject of death in many of his works to stir up the tension and intrigue of conflict, and in so doing, the listener’s interest. Listen to how he modified the resurrection theme to sound more heroic and triumphant:

RachmaninovAre you enjoying the series on Rachmaninov so far? There is so much to listen for, I find myself listening to his music over and over and hearing something new each time. I have at least three more pieces in mind that I’d like to discuss, so stay tuned.

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.

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.

Fury: Van der Roost

When I was in high school, there was this band that wore black and silver uniforms and performed aggressive, angry music at band contests. Quite frankly, they scared the hell out of the rest of us. Part of the reason for that was the music their director chose to perform had such “affect.” It moved the audience and always elicited an emotional response.

One of these pieces was Stonehenge by Jan Van der Roost (b. 1956) for Brass Band. The Brass Band is an English tradition that began in the late 1800s and exists today in many parts of Europe. Each town would have its own Brass Band and they would march to neighboring towns to have some of the first “battles of the bands.” The reason there were so many brass bands was because brass instruments were much less expensive to make than string or woodwind instruments during the Industrial Revolution, when metal and machinery became more widely available. Brass bands consist of piccolo trumpets, trumpets, cornets, French horns (though most are made in Germany now, so they are just called Horns), alto horns (like a small baritone), trombones, baritones, euphoniums (like a small tuba), various sizes of tubas, and percussion. I love the sound of a brass band because of the wide range of dynamics and pitch, from very high- to very low-sounding instruments. Going to a brass band concert is the closest thing to to seeing a Rock concert in the Classical music genre.

Stonehenge is a great example of the definition of the word fury. It portrays a violent, wild anger. An untamed, powerful anger. It begins with a soft, dream-like atmosphere that lasts for several minutes until the is a rumbling in the distance of drums and brass, sounding the alarm. When the threat finally arrives, a rampage of fury ensues:

The chord progression in this section is so thickly-scored by Van der Roost and has so much dissonance, it can sound almost atonal to the listener. Remember, atonal means there is no recognizable melody or key that the notes fit into. This coincides with the wild, violent anger of fury. Violence rarely makes logical sense. It can be disorganized, random, destructive, and pointless. Or raw aggression, which is what this clip seems to show. The composer wrote about the piece here, but does not give us very concrete answers as to what this music means.

Random angry baby

I like the use of silence in this next clip. Have you ever known someone who was really angry, but being completely silent about it? That is almost more scary than their violent outbursts.

The silences keep us in suspense. There are times during the day that I have enough frustration, I could imagine myself as the percussionist in this clip wailing on a drum. Can you feel it? Is your aggressive side coming out? Isn’t this a great way to deal with pent up aggression? Trying to think of bunny-shaped clouds never worked for me, anyway.

Anger in action: Holst

If you’re like me, then anger is an emotion that you feel on a regular basis at varying degrees. I’ve found it to be a very motivating emotion. Usually action is the result of anger, whether positive or negative. When there’s anger, stuff happens. In fact, as far as emotions go, anger seems to involve more action, raw energy and intensity than any other.

anger |ˈaNGgər| – noun – a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger

As you can see, fury is anger plus negative action. It’s wild. It’s violent. I picked fury as one of the emotions because Classical music depicts this kind of anger the most, as is the case in Mars from The Planets by English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). This is an incredibly well-known piece that has been heard in commercials, football games, and countless other contexts because of its overt character and memorable, agressive quality. This movement has also been imitated in a number of movie soundtracks by composers like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer. In a future series, I will explore various movie soundtracks and show how they are influenced by Classical composers.

The subtitle of this movement is “The Bringer of War.” The image above is from the opening battle scene in the movie Gladiator.

It is evident that this music is angry and reminds us of war, but why? First, Holst uses dissonance by using a chord progression that doesn’t function like normal, Western music. It features many power chords that shift from minor to major. This reminds me of the scene in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when the emperor tells Luke, “your hate has made you powerful.” Second, the time signature is in 5/4 time, which means there are five beats in a measure of time instead of 4. Most music has either 3 beats in a measure or 4 beats, but rarely 5. Subconsciously, the asymmetry of the 5/4 time throws the listener off balance. Third, brass instruments are featured in a big way in this movement. In the history of war, most civilizations used wind instruments to march out on the field and sound the advance, retreat, and otherwise excite the troops and intimidate the enemy. Finally, it is the driving tempo, drums, and dynamic volumes that are played, such as the stark contrast between the subdued, suspenseful beginning and this overtly loud, ominous clip:

I can already feel my blood boiling. And we’re just getting started.

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.