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.

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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!)
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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!

Keeping Score

I am getting closer to writing my first post about one of my favorite works of orchestral music: Barber’s Symphony No. 1.

Before I do, I have a quick influence I’d like to mention: the PBS miniseries Keeping Score. Again featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, Keeping Score is a show on PBS with 55-minute episodes that are spent analyzing works of classical music. There are 8 episodes so far that span 3 seasons, and the first six episodes are available from iTunes. You can buy all six for $8.99 or each episode for $1.99. Here is a list of the works discussed:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Copeland: various
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Ives: Holidays Symphony
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

In these episodes, MTT shows the viewer the historical significance of each work and they it was so revolutionary. He actually visits many of the settings in which the work was written, performed, and places it influenced. The scenes often cut back to the San Francisco Symphony performing each piece to illustrate the point MTT made. I enjoy the fact that in many of the episodes we get the performer’s take on the music. For example, orchestra members speak to what it meant to live in soviet Russia during the time Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 or what it was like to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

If you only watch one episode, for $1.99 I recommend the Rite of Spring episode. This is another work similar to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that displays the full range of what a symphony orchestra is capable of. If you have heard this piece before and thought it strange and inaccessible, watch this episode and you will be sure to change your mind.