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.

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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.

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.

Photobucket

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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Fury: Stravinsky

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger
rage |rāj| – noun – violent, uncontrollable anger

As my final post on anger & fury, I chose the 5th movement from The Firebird Suite, entitled “The Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” by Igor Stravinsky. As you can see above, fury and rage have similar definitions. The idea of uncontrollable anger fits these clips. In the ballet, The Firebird, the main character, Prince Ivan, confronts King Kastchei and is attacked by the king’s magical creatures. The Firebird, who promised to help Ivan, puts the magical creatures under his spell and makes them do an “infernal dance.” It is a very intense scene.

The writers at Disney took the story a different direction. In Fantasia 2000, The Firebird is a creature that was awakened deep inside a volcano by a delicate fairy. The volcano erupts, spewing fire and ash as the Firebird pursues the fairy until catching it, swallowing it in fire and lava. The bird in this story has a rather demonic character and seems to be filled with pure rage. This was not the sort of anger that could be reasoned with. Here is the opening of the movement:

There are a number of musical reasons why this clip from The Firebird Suite sounds so furious. It opens with a loud, orchestral bang that can be startling. After that, there is a melody in the horns and tuba that is played off the beat instead of on the beat, like most melodies. This creates a jarring effect. The horns are playing in their low range, similar to the way they did in my earlier clip from Shostakovich 5, where they sounded downright mean. The melody is full of half-step intervals which create dissonance. There is no chord progression here – it is just a minor key pedal, as though you had hit a low note on the piano while pushing the pedal. It is sustained throughout the melody; suspended. Ever feel like time stands still when you’re angry? That is what is happening here harmonically. After the second orchestral bang, the horns jump up two octaves to their upper range. This is a composer’s trick to add intensity to any melody by taking it up an octave. But Stravinsky is an over-achiever by going up two octaves.

The end of this work becomes even more out of control as the notes get faster and faster, the trumpets play fast, double-tongued notes, the trombones glissando (slide in between notes), and the biggest orchestral bang slams the door on us.

I hope you enjoyed listening to this aggressive Classical music. There are many great compilations that have titles like “Classical Thunder” that portray these emotions to an even greater extent. Here are some other pieces that display fury and anger, to name only a few:

Rachmaninov: Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Op. 3/2, “The Bells Of Moscow” – #2 In C Sharp Minor
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: I The Adoration of the Earth: Young Girls’ Dances
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: II The Sacrifice: Glorification
Orff: O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
Verdi: Dies irae from Requiem Mass

Next week: Longing, love & passion.

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.

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.

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!