Wonder: Stravinsky

Igor_StravinskyHere’s a mood-altering drug for you courtesy of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – it’s the introduction to the second act of The Rite of Spring. It’s today’s example of Emotion in Classical music, specifically awe and wonder. Even though The Rite of Spring was composed 100 years ago this year, it is still considered modern music because of how stretching it is to our ears and to any orchestra that attempts to perform it.

This movement is an introduction to a series of scenes at the end of which a young girl is sacrificed as an act of worship to the Earth by savages, but I could never latch on to that imagery. Instead, I imagine floating in the vacuum of space. Weightless, alone with the void of existence, pondering the vastness of the universe, and yet able to look back and see the body on which all of humanity lives in one gaze: the Earth. That is definitely an experience that gives one a sense of wonder.

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Stravinsky creates this sense of wonder through his use of harmony, or disharmony in this case. He uses a strange ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) that uses a tritone interval, which is one of the most dissonant intervals. Some police sirens, particularly in Europe, use a tritone interval because the dissonance is very attention-grabbing. Stravinsky also uses tone clusters; a very revolutionary idea for 1913. Tone clusters are similar to if a person were to take their palm and push down several notes on a piano at a time. This happens in the middle part of this clip, when the orchestra’s texture becomes thicker and louder.

John_WilliamsIntroduction: Sacrifice from The Rite of Spring is a great example of how Classical music can leave incredibly tangible impressions on listeners. John Williams was an admirer of Stravinsky because he clearly borrowed from him to describe the desolate landscapes of the planet Tatooine in his soundtrack to Star Wars Episode IV. Can you hear the similarities?

I plan to write a whole series on movie composers and the ways they borrow from Classical music to create a profound impact on their audiences. I believe those who enjoy these movie soundtracks secretly love Classical music, they just don’t know it yet.

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Disillusionment: Elgar

Imagine you are living in England in 1919. You are in your early sixties and have just had your entire world-view turned upside down over the past four years. Nine million people have just been killed in the deadliest conflict the world had ever known, World War I. You live in Sussex just across the English Channel from France where artillery fire can be heard for months at a time. While you’ve had a successful career, your compositions are becoming less and less popular. Your music is labeled “old” and “plain.” On top of that, you’ve just had an infected tonsil removed (a very dangerous operation at the time) and your wife of 31 years is about to die from lung cancer. You wake up from surgery in a daze, and as you recover, you write down a melody that just about sums it all up.

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These were Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) circumstances when composing his Cello Concerto in E Minor. Listen to the opening of the piece performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Edward_Elgar,_posing_for_the_camera_(1931)The raw emotion is apparent from the first notes of this piece. Typically, concertos have an orchestral introduction before the soloist plays. In this case, it is the soloist who introduces the orchestra. It is also uncommon for the soloist to play with great difficulty in the first passages, but the first notes in Elgar’s Cello Concerto are very hard to play. This adds to the drama and tension. Here the cellist is playing triple stops, a technique where the player bows three strings at a time, while placing his fingers in the exact right spot on each string he’s bowing. Getting the tuning and volume to balance between the strings takes years, even decades to master.

This next clip conveys a great sense of loss. It could represent the death of an ideal or the realization that a certain reality we’ve come to rely on was actually an illusion. Perhaps your faith in humanity, or the goodness of God, or the love of a close one has been broken. All that is left is disillusionment and anger. Elgar captures these in the tone quality of the cello, which is not unlike the sound of the human voice. The minor key, the slower, solemn melody, and the dominance of the low instruments in the texture give the listener the message of sadness.

The process of publishing and premiering this concerto must have created disillusionment for Elgar in itself. The piece was rumored to be badly rehearsed and the first performance was a failure. It was not until the 1960s that the piece gained widespread popularity. Now it is an essential part of the literature that every serious cellist studies and performs.

All four movements of the concerto are worth hearing. Enjoy!

Longing for encouragement: Elgar

Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is a theme with a set of variations written about various people Elgar knew throughout his life. These people ranged from his wife, (variation 1) to his friend’s dog (variation 11) to a great friend and mentor (variation 9). It is variation number nine, entitled “Nimrod,” that expresses a great sense of longing. You may have heard this piece during the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

The names of these variations are meant to mask the person’s real identity, but in this case we know the real name is Augustus Jaeger, an older friend, critic, and a source of great encouragement for Elgar. It is said that when Elgar had many setbacks in his career, or felt depressed and thought about giving up composing, Jaeger was always there to encourage him to take heart and continue writing. Elgar reportedly stated that this movement is not so much of a portrait of Jaeger, but “a story of something that happened.”

I admire Elgar for writing a piece about people who have inspired and encouraged him. It sounds like a good exercise to sit down and write about those who have encouraged me over the years. This variation about the encouragement Edward Elgar received is in itself an encouragement to me. It helps me remember that I would not be the person I am today without the encouragement of my parents, my wife, my friends, clarinet teachers, and various other mentors in my life.

And that’s why I want to tell you about my friend, Jesus Christ.

Just kidding! You thought I was about to get preachy. But seriously, this work does remind me of Jesus. I was at a conference in college when I first heard Variation IX. It was the soundtrack to some powerful scenes from blockbuster movies. A word would appear on the screen, like “courage” and then it would show a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or it would say “true love” and would show the final scene from Sense and Sensibility. Finally, it said “sacrifice” and showed a scene from The Jesus Film with Jesus dying on the cross. I don’t remember the last slides, but the message was about the story of creation and how we have a God that loves us through it all. He has been a source of encouragement since I was very little and heard my first bits of Classical music. When I think about the way Jesus lived his life, the way he encourages me in dark places, and how he is so present in this moment the way this music is, I long for his goodness.

Instead of going into the musical reasons why this piece is so powerful, I have some homework: listen this piece in its entirety, with no distractions, and meditate on someone who has inspired you. Did anyone specific come to mind? Be encouraged and thankful for him or her, and let the longing you feel motivate you to continue doing all of the good things you do.

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!