Dwelling on the past: Piano Concerto No. 2

The challenge for composers when writing the final movement of a concerto is to wrap up the piece by bringing back themes from previous movements, introducing something new, showing off the soloist’s technical ability, and by leaving the listener with a distinct message. It could be one of disillusionment, satisfaction, joy, even excitement. Often, I imagine the composer thinking, Ok, I’ve said all I want to say. Now for a bit of fun.

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The final movement of a symphony or concerto is often the most difficult for listeners when it comes to finding meaning. There is no easy answer to the question: “what is the composer saying here?” Final movements are often the least cohesive and can jump around between different sentiments. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3 begins with an almost comic interlude. This, after ending an incredibly delicate, emotional second movement, seems to snap us out of a trance and bring us back down to earth where time is ticking again. In the first half of the clip below the feeling is light and comical, but it quickly morphs into anxiety. And time seems to be ticking faster.

While listening to this movement, I imagine that I have just awaken from the most sweet dream (movement 2) and now I must act quickly to make that dream a reality, or it will be lost forever. Much of this movement feels frantic. Of course, Rachmaninov takes this opportunity to write an insane run in the left hand that is mind-blowing to me still, after dozens of hearings. It is hard to believe that just ten fingers are producing that many notes.

1zhY8The new theme that is introduced is reminiscent of the slower, sweeter theme of the second movement. There is something about the way this melody sounds that reminds me of a romanticized Middle East, like in the movies. Like a bright, wide-open landscape with golden sand shimmering in the sun. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?

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The remaining clips I’ll share convey the sense of longing that Rachmaninov comes back to again and again. It is the near obsession, the intense longing for something or someone who may only exist in dreaming. It is the longing for a happier, better reality than the one we currently find ourselves in. It grows more intense as the movement progresses. First we find it in the piano, then with greater intensity and dissonance with the full orchestra.

Sometimes I think Rachmaninov never really gets past the second movement in this concerto. It seems to be the climax of the concerto, and because it is such a masterpiece, it seems that anything he could have written after would exist in the shadow of it. Though this is my least favorite of the three movements, it is still worth a listen because of the raw virtuosity of the pianist and the closure that finally does come at the end.

Up next: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’ll be a wild ride.

Clarinet recital videos: Ibert

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IU5R9dR43E]

Trois Pièces Brèves by Jacques Ibert

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) was a French composer who wrote in a modern, yet Romantic style. Romanticism appeals to wider audiences because of its tangible, often extreme emotions, lyricism, and memorable melodies. It is often programmic, meaning that it characterizes a specific story. As Allan McMurray (now retired from CU-Boulder after 35 years as Director of Bands) would say, “All music is doing one of two things. It’s either singing or it’s dancing.” Trois Pièces Brèves (Three Short Pieces) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn by Jacques Ibert has examples of both.

Movement one is a fun, carefree country dance. While there is an oboe solo in the middle that seems to call into question the carefree atmosphere, the dance resumes and works itself into a frenzy by the end of the movement. Though the form is not technically the same, the melody of this dance sounds like an Irish Gigue to which Ibert would have had some exposure. A gigue is characterized by a strong backbeat which can inspire toe-tapping, even knee-slapping. Please keep the knee-slapping to a dull roar during the performance.

Movement two is a ballad (love song) featuring the flute and clarinet. It is a conversation between the two, sometimes in close harmony, sometimes fairly independent of one another. It contains some rubato which is defined as the pushing forward and pulling back of tempo (speed), where the performer is allowed to be more expressive and free than in other music. It is the performer’s objective to imitate the human voice in these passages. The horn player in this movement is made to count dozens of measures of rest and then play one long, low, muted note. Brass players often find themselves doing this in orchestral music, but it is rare to rest that long in a woodwind quintet setting.

Movement three opens tentatively with solos in horn and bassoon that are reminiscent of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The two dances in this movement are a quick dance in 4 and a waltz in 3. The exuberant clarinet and flute solos pass to oboe who again represents the more serious voice. In general, this movement could be characterized as “episodic” meaning that it passes from one event to the next quickly, with little transitional material, similar to a TV series episode.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0Xn5IoXpeY]

Big moments in Rachmaninov

I can’t really say that I am switching gears away from my series on Emotion in Classical Music, because a series on Rachmaninov demonstrates a wide spectrum of emotions.

RachmaninovUntil I find time to write in-depth about Rachmaninov’s music, here is a clip to tide you over. It is from the first movement of his second symphony.

I am a sucker for big orchestral moments. I love the raw power, the intensity, and the feeling of tingling down my spine and hairs raised on my neck. Is that wrong?

What is the feeling you get when you hear this clip? Does this clip remind you of a movie scene? If so, which one? I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to many, really.

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.

Sorrow: Barber

griefPain. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief. These are sentiments that are expressed most poignantly by almost every musical genre. I think people turn to music because sorrow is such an intense emotion, it is difficult to process. Sometimes it isn’t enough to cry, sob, lay in bed for hours, or explain the feeling of sorrow in words. We must listen to, write, or perform a piece of music to reflect our deepest feelings. For me, music can bring about a certain clarity and can help me ride the waves of emotion instead of let them crash over me.

There is a lot of very sad Classical music. In his Ted Talk, Benjamin Zander discussed how Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor helped an unlikely audience member mourn the death of his brother for the first time. Until then, he was unable to cry for his brother. It is on this emotion that Classical music probably speaks to the most number of people.

Samuel BarberAdagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of the saddest, most beautiful, cathartic pieces I know. Composed in 1938, Adagio for Strings has appeared in at least 10 movies, many TV shows, and even video games. Its very simple form, harmony, and instrumentation (just violin, viola, cello and bass) make it a piece that is very easy to connect with. It is a great meditation piece because it is the same melody repeated over and over, just with changing texture and dynamics. In musical terms, texture is how many instruments are playing at once. In this piece, sometimes it is just the first violins, or just the violas that are playing at a time. The first note, for example, features just a few violin players.

This brings about a sense of vulnerability and anticipation. The listener may subconsciously think, “if there is only one note and no harmony, how will I know if the piece is happy or sad, or how it will end?” The form of the piece is an arch, with the dynamic getting louder to the point of climax, then dying down to a sleepy resignation. It is perhaps reflective of the last two stages of grief cycle, from depression to acceptance. There may be some anger and bargaining in there as well, especially during the climax section. As the emotions get more intense, the music becomes louder, the strings change the direction of their bows more abruptly, and there is clearly a feeling of anger and asking “why?”

I’ve always been struck that this piece ends on a major chord, but it is not the one we expect. But aren’t major chords supposed to make us feel happy? Well this one doesn’t!

The musical term for this is half cadence. Here’s a simple harmony lesson: every chord in a chord progression is numbered, from 1 to 7, depending on which notes it has in it. Many chord progressions will use a one chord, then a four chord, then a five chord, and then go back to the one chord. The five chord has notes in it that make us want to hear the one chord again. If we don’t hear the one chord again, it can be a little disturbing. Well that is just what Samuel Barber did to us on this last chord. It signifies something very important: that even though we can express and process through our sorrow, it may never fully go away.

I am so happy to be writing again after moving my family to another state over the last couple months. After sadness/sorrow, there are two more emotions I’d like to discuss and then I’ll move on. I’m glad you’re here reading and (hopefully) leaving comments.

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.

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.

Serenity Now: Grieg

One of my inspirations for this series on Emotion in Classical Music was listening to the local Classical radio station’s “Road Rage Remedy.” On weekdays, at 7:20am and 5:20pm, they play a piece of Classical music that creates a serene atmosphere in the car. When listening to this music in the height of rush hour, it is difficult to get upset when someone cuts me off, breezes by on the shoulder, waits to merge until the last second, or drives slowly in the left lane. If I turn up the volume in my car, I can’t even hear the road or engine noise. It is quite pleasant.

Edvard Grieg‘s (1843-1907) Lyric Pieces for Solo Piano are an example of a Road Rage Remedy. The piano can be an incredibly calming instrument. It’s something about the way those hammers hit the strings that draws my ear. Pianos can sound like wind, rushing or bubbling water, a car engine, a full orchestra, a woman’s voice, or even children playing,

The tone in Arietta from Book 1 of the Lyric Pieces reminds me of my son, Bennett. He is eight months old and has a playful, innocent, content character (most of the time). In fact, it is not uncommon for the unique character of a piece of Classical music to remind me of specific people I know, famous people, or figures in history. Assigning a theme song to a specific person is called a leitmotif. It first appeared in Wagner’s operas and has been used in countless contexts, from Peter and the Wolf to Star Wars. I would love to do a series on leitmotif in the future.

I have put together a slide show to go with today’s clip. The serene atmosphere in the Lyric Piece is achieved again with a soft dynamic, a slow tempo, major chords, some rubato (the changes in speed at which the song is played), and the fact that it sounds a lot like the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Try singing the words of it to this clip. The rhythm and tempo are the same, but the melody is different. Of course, this was originally composed by Mozart in 1781 as the theme of Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” a French folksong.

I think next time I’m in sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I’ll put on this music and think about my son, who doesn’t have a care in the world.

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!