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.

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Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Entombment

The Entombment of Christ

Movement two of Mathis der Maler is an interlude between the outer movements. This movement does not appear to be directly related to the plot of Paul Hindemith’s opera, Mathis der Maler, except as an orchestral interlude between scenes. The title “Entombment” reminds me of another famous Renaissance painting, though not by Matthias Grunewald. The Entombment of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio depicts the burial of Jesus as written in Mark 15:42-47. You may imagine those biblical series of events while listening to this movement, if you wish.

Regardless of what imagery you associate this music with, the thin orchestration and increasing dissonance in the harmony suggest loneliness and a sense of anticipation or brooding.

The imagery that comes to my mind in this movement is a bitterly cold winder. It is dark, quiet, the wind is blowing in my face, and it’s snowing. I imagine walking alone in the middle of a forest. I’m lost and have been for several hours. My confidence level is down and I am questioning how this happened and if I will find my way back before my light is completely gone. Even though I sense the danger, I am tired and can still enjoy the simple beauty of nature, even in the cold. There is something so peaceful and mysterious about snow falling. Watching it can send me into a bit of a trance.

This movement has one theme that is modified as the movement progresses:

The second time we hear the theme, it is inverted. That is to say, the notes on the staff are flipped upside-down. Instead of the melody going up in pitch and then back down, the melody first goes down and then back up. This part is more hymn-like. Notice the eerie loneliness portrayed by the flute solo in this clip.

As is Hindemith’s tendency, the theme is developed into a climax later in the movement. The dissonance grows in the supporting chords played by the low brass and strings in this section.

Ending on a strong major chord would sound very final, but that is not how this movement ends. It becomes increasingly dissonant until it finally comes to a rest with a soft major chord. The feeling here is of finally sitting down and resting tired feet after a long day.

Slow movements of symphonies tend to portray the composer’s more introverted side. Instead of action, speech, and scenery, it is more an inner thought life that is expressed. If I imagine myself alone in a forest, I am left with only my thoughts and nature. As the theme intensifies and reaches that final major chord, I imagine my thoughts developing and solidifying. The tension in the harmony (or disharmony) reminds me of how my inner thought life is often filled with dissonance, worry, or conflict. I imagine you have similar patterns of thought from time to time.

Music is great for helping process through many thoughts and emotions. Be sure to stay tuned for the final movement of Mathis der Maler as well as my series on emotions where I pick an emotion each week and write about five pieces that speak to that emotion. I’m looking forward to it.