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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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.

Calculated anger: Beethoven

There is not a single song or piece that we listen to today that has not been influenced in some way by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He established and popularized the musical language that is used in all of today’s popular music, jazz, and the vast majority of symphonic music that came after him. As one of my history professors put it, “no composer since has ever started to write a piece without first considering the work of Beethoven.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has one of the most recognizable phrases in all of Classical music. While the first movement is the most well-known, the other three movements display a wide variety of characters and emotions which are all held together by just four notes.

Don’t you want to keep listening? Copyright laws only allow a 30 second clip for educational purposes, or I’d upload it all. Beethoven has a way of gripping us and not letting go until the end of the piece. I wish I had time to tell you everything that is interesting about this piece and how it would affect the way you listen to it. Talking about Beethoven is not easy because there is so much I could say and I have so little time. So instead, I will simply talk about the character of the piece as it relates to anger. The kind of anger displayed here is not a wild violent anger but it is a carefully calculated anger. A stubborn, indignant anger. The kind of anger that comes out of deep thought.

The intervals (distance) between pitches are important in this four-note melody (technically it is a “motive” since it is so short). The interval between the third and fourth notes is a major third – a very human interval. It is an interval that our voices naturally sing when saying two-syllable words. When a mother calls to her children in the back yard, “Din-ner!” she usually sings a major third. But in Beethoven’s case, it is a major third that functions on the upper side of a minor chord. With this tonal language, it seems that Beethoven is communicating that anger is a very human emotion.

Secondly, anger can bubble up out of nowhere, the way it does after the introduction. The strings play several fast notes at a soft dynamic, becoming more insistent when the orchestra rushes in and makes three hard blows to the stomach. The anger intensifies when the four-note motive comes back again with the horns blasting along side the strings.

The rest of the movement moves from angry thought to angry thought, as though the character in this movement is trying to reason himself out of being angry. I love the suspense, the contrast, and they way Beethoven takes these four notes and makes a masterpiece out of them. Sometimes I think Beethoven and MacGyver are a lot alike. MacGyver could take a stick, bubble gum and a lighter and make a deadly weapon and Beethoven can take four notes and make a dazzling symphony.

I hope you get a chance to listen to the entire symphony. It is worth every minute. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to Beethoven soon enough. And I still won’t have enough time to say all there is to say about his music.

Anger in grief: Shostakovich

As you may already know, anger is not only an emotion but it is part of the grieving process. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

I believe much of the grief Dimitri Shostakovich experienced during the oppression of Joseph Stalin is expressed in anger. Much of his art was suppressed and many of his countrymen were imprisoned and murdered. What Shostakovich did not have the freedom to express with words, he wrote into his music.

Bitter anger is the only emotion I can take away when listening to today’s clip from Symphony No. 5, Mvt 1. The piano, horns and trumpets are playing in their lowest range. It is not common to hear a piano solo that is this low because it would not project over the orchestra in a normal context. But Shostakovich removes the rest of the orchestra so the piano accompaniment is crystal clear. When the horns enter, they sound like trombones at first. Most people don’t realize that the horn has the widest range of any brass instrument. They can play as low or lower than a tuba and higher than most trumpets, with little effort. Of course, in this register the horn sounds raspy and mean. Perfect for this emotional context. The same is true for the trumpets in this clip. Even through it is members of the New York Philharmonic playing, their tone here is intentionally ugly.

Michael Tilson Thomas has a great commentary of this melody on Keeping Score. He says that the fourth note of the melody (listen again if you need to) is irregular. It doesn’t fit the key, which means we can label it a dissonant note. Because it is one half-step lower than we expect it to be, it pushes our buttons as listeners. Also, if you were to look at the notes of this melody on the page, they form the shape of a valley. The notes go down in the first half of the melody, and just when it doesn’t seem they can go any lower, Shostakovich takes them one step lower than that before coming back up. The lowest note in the melody is also the lowest note a trumpet can play, an F-sharp. Interesting the that the grief chart is also in the shape of a valley.

Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich’s most famous piece. It is filled with interesting moments like these. Be sure to listen to the whole symphony if you get a chance.

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.

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!

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!