Euphoria: Glinka

Euphoric baby

Today’s clip goes beyond elation or joy. The most fitting word is

euphoria |yo͞oˈfôrēə| – noun – a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

The exuberance in Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is very contagious. It is hard for me to listen to this music and think anything but positive thoughts. This piece is all about seizing the day, the thrill of the chase, zeal for life, and gusto. Listening to this piece makes me feel like I could do anything. It reminds me of how much life is an adventure just waiting to happen.

A not-so-euphoric Glinka

It is hard to imagine the man from this portrait writing such euphoric music, but of course his music displays a wide variety of emotions. Glinka is often referred to as the “Russian father of Classical music.” He came before most of the major Russian composers you may have heard of like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsokov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.

The Russian style of Classical music has always been one of great intensity, grandeur, and virtuosity. It is the opposite of subtle and can be over-stated. The Russian style is like the William Shatner of Classical music. It’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard but sometimes it’s a bit much.

Anyway, this overture is no exception. According to my Apple dictionary, an overture is simply “an introduction to something more substantial.” This definition is quite ironic considering overtures can be quite substantial themselves. Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila begins with a bang with the whole orchestra playing at once: drums, strings, woodwinds and brass. This acts as a spring board to launch the string section high into the air with their sixteenth-note runs.

This happens a second time before sending the strings into a frenzy of notes reaching up into the highest parts of their range. Though they may sound incredibly virtuosic, these kinds of sixteenth-note runs can be quite easy to play. Classical musicians spend much of their time practicing scales, which is all these runs consist of. As long as the runs do not skip a note or two or are in a difficult key, the average professional Classical musician should have no problems with them. Here is a recording from one of my clarinet recitals playing the finale from Sonata for Clarinet by Camille Saint-Saens. Enjoy!

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Elation: Adams

Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams (b. 1947) is a piece that both expresses elation and makes me elated when listening. It is what I call “go music.” There is so much energy, optimism, brilliance and character, I can’t help but feel invigorated.

John Adams is a minimalist composer. Most people think that minimalism has no melody and simply repeats over and over again. This is not true. Minimalism has a long melody over time that doesn’t stay the same, it is always different. Always evolving.

You’ll notice that in this first clip, everything starts on the beat with the wood block: the fast clarinet notes, the trumpets, and the trombones. But as things evolve, they get off the beat and become more and more syncopated. It reminds me of dancing.

A few minutes in, there is someone who enters the dance who doesn’t want to do it the same way. Perhaps an older, heavy man who doesn’t enjoy it as much. The rhythm in this clip still has the wood block and the eighth-note motor in the strings, but the basses and tubas play a a rhythm that is slower and disjointed from the rest. This is a phenomenon known as polyrhythm. The effect on the listener is the same as if she were to pat her head and rub her stomach. You actually have to think and be engaged to listen to this kind of music.

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!

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!