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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Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Temptation of St. Anthony

This final movement of Mathis Der Maler by Paul Hindemith is an exciting one filled with suspense, aggression, loss, and majesty. The title of this movement (“Temptation of St. Anthony”) illustrates one of the panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) and suggests a certain storyline. In this case, however, I have chosen to make up my own. Though much of Classical music was written for various events, or to tell a specific story (this is called programmatic music), a listener’s experience of the music does not have to be limited to the piece’s subject. Even vocal music can invoke different meanings from what the lyrics suggest.

The story this music tells me is one of heroes, sinister villains, battle, defeat and triumph.

The introduction begins with many stops and starts, like an approaching thunderstorm. This clip depicts flashes of lightning and thunder.

Shortly after, there is a sinister sounding theme that is repeated many times in this movement. The picture I get is of the villain arriving on the scene, hell-bent on our hero’s destruction. And for some reason, I picture him riding a chariot. I suppose it is because of the driving rhythmic pattern, something Hindemith is well known for.

I have memories of my clarinet teacher in my undergraduate, Dan Silver, making absolutely sure that I didn’t cheat this rhythm, but made it exact: the dotted-eighth sixteenth. Can you hear the “dot da-dot da-dot da-dot da-dot” in the background?

As I imagine this battle progressing, one side of the conflict scores some pretty big blows. These come in the form of lethal punches or stabbings. It reminds me of the music in one of my favorite comedies of all time, The Princess Bride, when the six-fingered man stabs Inigo Montoya during an epic sword fight.

I never got into heavy metal, hardcore punk, or screamo as a teenager, but I do enjoy music that displays pure aggression. I have always appreciated fast, loud, and scary when it comes to symphonic music. I have moods where the more brass and percussion, the better. That is why I am such a big Drum & Bugle Corps junkie. Even within Classical or symphonic music there are moments where the music refuses to be tamed. It takes on a life of its own as a snarling monster, a daredevil, a nuclear explosion, and goes on a murderous rampage. I will be sure to include examples of aggression when I do my series on emotion. Since ‘aggression’ isn’t a direct emotion, I imagine I will call it ‘anger’ or ‘fury’. Fury sounds more dramatic.

This next clip is another great example of mounting aggression. In the chaos, we see our hero revealed at just the right moment to score a major blow on the enemy.

Because of the episodic nature of this movement, I will not take you through each moment in the piece. You should just buy it on Amazon or iTunes or listen to it on Spotify (NEW!)
spotify:track:4KCBEuyDTl2JCx51sjhTSD
There is a slow section that proceeds this minor victory that is more subdued, mournful, and disillusioned. It is an excellent reminder of the fact that people die in wars. That there is a great cost that comes with victory. That there is an undertone of death and loss of innocence.

The end of the piece is a brass fanfare. Hindemith’s orchestration here sounds like a pipe organ. The feel here is grandiose. Majestic. I get the sense that our hero has won the war, returned home victorious, and has been summoned to the king’s throne room to be given the highest honor for bravery.

Thanks for reading about these three unique movements. Help me out – go to Facebook and vote on what I should write about next. I have a couple of ideas and I’d appreciate your input. Also, if you are reading, feel free to leave comments here as well. Thanks!

YTSO

Continuing in the series of influences for my Big Idea is the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, YouTube announced that it was taking video auditions for an orchestra that would give a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2009. Videos were posted of conductors and professional symphony musicians giving instructions for how the audition materials were to be performed. Many amateur musicians made their audition debut by simply downloading the music, watching the video master classes, and uploading their audtion to YouTube. The 101-member orchestra was selected and it rehearsed for a week in New York City before giving a concert. This concert may be watched in two parts: part one and part two. Other than several bad transitions, this concert was filled with great music and talent.

After the success of the first YTSO, another one was assembled in 2011 at a much grander scale. This time, the venue was the Sydney Opera House in Australia. There are three major themes associated with this orchestra that inspire me:

Great visuals. In both concerts, Obscura Digital provided digital projections that illustrated the music. Images were projected inside the concert halls as well as on the outside of the sails of the Sydney Opera House in dramatic fashion. As you can see below, they are absolutely stunning. During the 2011 concert, a sand artist illustrated one of the pieces. It is pretty impressive stuff. (see 1:47:42 below). As I said in my last post, there are no limits to what the imagination can make of this music.

Digital projections during “Mothership” by Obscura Digital

Personal stories. In between pieces were videos of various performers in the concert. Each expressed what being in the YTSO was like and what music meant to them personally. Here are three:

“Music puts out your fears, your deepest emotions, your angers, everything you have inside you.” – Maria Chiossi, harp (Brescia, Italy)

“I have always had music going on in my head. This is why I love being a musician. When you actually feel the audience feeling what you are feeling, it’s great!” – Xiomara Mass, oboe (Oberlin College, Ohio, USA – originally from Puerto Rico)

“I’ve put my entire career in the hands of the internet. These are my teachers. Musicians who are no longer alive, but who left their works behind, recorded in black and white. I learn from them. I incorporate their movements into mine. When I play a new piece, I upload it. I want people to know who I am, what I do, and to appreciate it.” – Stepan Grytsay, violin (Salta, Argentina – originally from Ukrane)

Knowing part of the performers’ stories helps establish a bond between the performer, the music, and the listener. I wish that our culture revered Classical musicians in much the same way as we do Hollywood actors. When I hear performances, it can be difficult to place the performance in context when I know nothing of the performer. I have an interest not just in the performer’s resume, as though he were applying for the job of my patronage, but I am interested in his influences and life experiences. I am interested in what lead him to this point to be playing this piece at this moment in time. Right now, the audience members have to do a lot of research to follow their favorite instrumentalist or singer.

Classical music advocacy. The scope and grand scale of these videos reminds me of the Olympics. It gets me excited about Classical music, art, world cultures, and God’s unique creation in each artist the way that the Olympics excite me about sports and athleticism. The diversity of instruments, sounds, and styles that the symphony orchestra displays may be easily compared to the diversity of humanity. I’ll be sure to write more about this in a future post. Michael Tilson Thomas opened the 2011 concert with this statement:

“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.”

– MTT

I have embedded the entire Grand Finale Concert below. Just in case you do not wish to watch the entire two hours and twenty-two minutes, I have prioritized in order of those I believe are a “must see” with some brief commentary:

1:25:00 (intro at 1:23:08): Bates: Mothership – Mason Bates, composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (13:42) – Mothership is a great example of the really cool things modern composers are doing with orchestras. This is one of the highlights of the concert because it includes the world premiere of a brand new composition that features improvisation, electronic music, virtuoso soloists, and incredible visual projections. For the studio recording of this work with other example improvisations, watch this video. Even though improvisation was a major part of classical music, it seems it fell away in the interests of preserving the music in its original form. As Mason Bates puts it, Mothership brings that back. Here are the featured soloists:

John Burgess (Canberra, Australia), electric double bass
Ali Bello (New York), violin
Paulo Calligopoulos (Sau Paulo, Brazil), electric guitar
Su Chang (Beijing, China), guzheng

1:08:01: Barton: Prelude – William Barton, didgeridoo (5:07) – I love William Barton’s improvisation here. Listening to his playing is sheer joy and impresses upon me the incredible number of sounds one instrument can make, such as the didgeridoo.

48:13 (intro at 46:51): Brittan: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (16:35) – If you haven’t heard this piece, be sure to check it out. It features each of the instruments in a modern symphony orchestra and helps audience members match the sound with the instrument that produces it. This is as good a performance of Young Person’s Guide as any I’ve heard. Watch the intro (46:51) if you get a chance.

Renee Fleming

41:20: Mozart: Cara Bell’idol Mio (3:07) – Renee Fleming, soprano with the Sydney Children’s Choir – I forgot how beautiful children’s choirs can be. They convey such a great sense of purity, innocence, and a sweetness that only children’s voices can. When I think about how broken and stressed this world is, listening to this music makes that melt away. This piece features Renee Fleming, opera star extraordinaire, and the Sydney Children’s choir. Check out Renee Fleming’s website – it is very classy. Her voice is captivating, as is this piece by Mozart.

17:56 – Grainger: Arrival Platform Humlet (3:07)
As with all of Grainger’s dances, this one is very playful. It has a mysterious energy as though the character in the piece were plotting something mischievous. I appreciate the contrast between playful, carefree sections and intense explosions of sound.

36:30: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt 4: Danza Final (3:26)
This is some great music from Latin America. The Danza Final really gets my blood pumping and reminds me of one of my favorite drum & bugle corps shows of all time – Blue Devils 1999: Rhythms at the End of Time (click to watch)

1:47:42: Abbas & Jackobsen: Ascending Bird: Suite for String Orchestra – Richard Tognetti and Colin Jackobsen, violinists; Kseniya Simonova, sand artist (7:15)
1:58:56: Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts 5, 6 & 7 (13:06)
3:15: Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture (8:17)
1:20:32: Strauss: Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic (2:19)
22:18 – J.S. Bach: Toccata in F major (7:04) – Cameron Carpenter, organ
32:41: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt. 2: Danza del Trigo (3:09)
1:37:33: Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Mvt. 3 – Stephan Jackiw, violin (6:48)
1:13:08: Constable: Suna – Synergy Percussion Ensemble (3:59)
2:14:46 (encore) Schubert: Rosemunde Overture

Did you like any of these pieces? What stood out to you?

Music in Motion

Marcus High School Band – Flower Mound, Texas

I gained exposure to much of my favorite Classical music through my experience in public school performing arts. Like Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, marching bands and drum & bugle corps animate music with formations, props, and various forms of choreography and dance. These marching ensembles combine art forms in the same way that the opera genre combines vocal and instrumental music, visual art, theater, and technical theater. I am most inspired by those ensembles who choose symphonic pieces such as the Marcus High School Marching Band, Phantom Regiment Drum & Bugle Corps, and Star of Indiana Drum & Bugle Corps.

While Star of Indiana no longer exists, they produced a show called “Blast!”. Instead of performing on a football field with over a hundred people, a couple dozen took the show to the stage. Blast! includes professional brass players, percussionists, and dancers who perform shows on Broadway in the style of drum & bugle corps, but more refined and varied than a typical marching show. Their repertoire includes various famous Classical works as well as jazz, rock, and even techno music. For many young people, just seeing this DVD is inspiration enough to start to play and instrument or take dance lessons.

Many consider Classical music to be boring. These marching and dance ensembles bring out the sheer excitement, electricity, and intense emotion intrinsic in this kind of music. When I write about Classical music, I want to draw from the excitement and show just how much of an incredible experience listening to and performing Classical music can be. I want to set music to videos and slide shows of related paintings, photography, even animated GIFs to convey the meaning and emotion of the music.