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 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.

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Angelic Concert

Ever thought about angels? Do you like art from the Renaissance? How about hiking? If yes, then you can relate to this piece.

Paul Hindemith was born in Germany in the late 1800s and lived and composed through two world wars. Mathis der Maler (translated Matthias the Painter) was an opera about the life of a painter. The opera was composed during the time Nazis came to power in Germany and was suppressed by the party. There are some interesting details about this in this wiki article.

Hindemith composed a purely instrumental symphony based on themes in the opera. The three movements in this symphony capture the essence of Matthias Grunewald’s Renaissance era paintings, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515). This is another example of art inspiring art.

The Angelic Concert is on the second view of the altarpiece. The detail is incredible. You can hear the various depictions of angels and their instruments in the music from the very beginning of the movement. Here are two examples:

In the first example, it is the shimmering major chords that seem to reflect a powerful, yet innocent angelic beauty. In the second half of this example, it is the violins playing very high in the background that reminds me of angels.

Other than those examples, this piece reminds me of hiking. The first couple of measures reminds me of waking up at dawn, getting out of bed, eating a modest breakfast, and going out the door before it gets too hot. Everything is still, quiet, and dark.

What follows are a series of sights one may encounter on a hiking trail from trees, birds, streams, water falls, large and small rocks, and wind in the trees to feeling tired, taking a break, or snapping some quick photographs. Something I love about Hindemith is the way his music always moves forward and upward. Listen to the unison strings keeping time and going higher in pitch in the background behind the trombone and horn melody:

Some of my favorite parts of hiking, especially in the mountains, is when I’ve hiked long enough to get above some trees and see my first scenic view. It is both majestic and breath-taking. On our hike through this music, I imagine that the sun is coming up on the horizon just as we reach the clearing:

Hindemith takes us on several bunny trails until we reach the top of the mountain. The powerful brass at the end of this movement reflect the power I feel in my body having conquered the long hike and made it to the top. There is an even greater majesty and feeling of satisfaction as we out and down on the landscape, perhaps seeing the trail we’ve just hiked hundreds of feet below. It is such a satisfying moment after the degree of uncertainty in parts of the music where it didn’t seem like we would make it. In short, it’s literally a mountaintop experience!

I love Hindemith’s use of power chords in this clip. While most chord progressions move in intervals of a second, fourth, or fifth, these power chords are a third apart. This kind of chord progression adds intrigue because it is not the typical way Western Classical music functions. You would never hear Beethoven or Mozart use chords of this kind because their resolution is a surprise. Beethoven, for example, does the opposite: he spends the length of his pieces building tension by taking you to a home he describes, but one at which you don’t arrive until you’ve anticipated it for several minutes. The ending here feels like a surprise, harmonically. To me, that is what makes it so interesting. I will be sure to give more examples of the surprises composers write into their music. Hindemith wasn’t the only one.

YTSO

Continuing in the series of influences for my Big Idea is the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, YouTube announced that it was taking video auditions for an orchestra that would give a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2009. Videos were posted of conductors and professional symphony musicians giving instructions for how the audition materials were to be performed. Many amateur musicians made their audition debut by simply downloading the music, watching the video master classes, and uploading their audtion to YouTube. The 101-member orchestra was selected and it rehearsed for a week in New York City before giving a concert. This concert may be watched in two parts: part one and part two. Other than several bad transitions, this concert was filled with great music and talent.

After the success of the first YTSO, another one was assembled in 2011 at a much grander scale. This time, the venue was the Sydney Opera House in Australia. There are three major themes associated with this orchestra that inspire me:

Great visuals. In both concerts, Obscura Digital provided digital projections that illustrated the music. Images were projected inside the concert halls as well as on the outside of the sails of the Sydney Opera House in dramatic fashion. As you can see below, they are absolutely stunning. During the 2011 concert, a sand artist illustrated one of the pieces. It is pretty impressive stuff. (see 1:47:42 below). As I said in my last post, there are no limits to what the imagination can make of this music.

Digital projections during “Mothership” by Obscura Digital

Personal stories. In between pieces were videos of various performers in the concert. Each expressed what being in the YTSO was like and what music meant to them personally. Here are three:

“Music puts out your fears, your deepest emotions, your angers, everything you have inside you.” – Maria Chiossi, harp (Brescia, Italy)

“I have always had music going on in my head. This is why I love being a musician. When you actually feel the audience feeling what you are feeling, it’s great!” – Xiomara Mass, oboe (Oberlin College, Ohio, USA – originally from Puerto Rico)

“I’ve put my entire career in the hands of the internet. These are my teachers. Musicians who are no longer alive, but who left their works behind, recorded in black and white. I learn from them. I incorporate their movements into mine. When I play a new piece, I upload it. I want people to know who I am, what I do, and to appreciate it.” – Stepan Grytsay, violin (Salta, Argentina – originally from Ukrane)

Knowing part of the performers’ stories helps establish a bond between the performer, the music, and the listener. I wish that our culture revered Classical musicians in much the same way as we do Hollywood actors. When I hear performances, it can be difficult to place the performance in context when I know nothing of the performer. I have an interest not just in the performer’s resume, as though he were applying for the job of my patronage, but I am interested in his influences and life experiences. I am interested in what lead him to this point to be playing this piece at this moment in time. Right now, the audience members have to do a lot of research to follow their favorite instrumentalist or singer.

Classical music advocacy. The scope and grand scale of these videos reminds me of the Olympics. It gets me excited about Classical music, art, world cultures, and God’s unique creation in each artist the way that the Olympics excite me about sports and athleticism. The diversity of instruments, sounds, and styles that the symphony orchestra displays may be easily compared to the diversity of humanity. I’ll be sure to write more about this in a future post. Michael Tilson Thomas opened the 2011 concert with this statement:

“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.”

– MTT

I have embedded the entire Grand Finale Concert below. Just in case you do not wish to watch the entire two hours and twenty-two minutes, I have prioritized in order of those I believe are a “must see” with some brief commentary:

1:25:00 (intro at 1:23:08): Bates: Mothership – Mason Bates, composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (13:42) – Mothership is a great example of the really cool things modern composers are doing with orchestras. This is one of the highlights of the concert because it includes the world premiere of a brand new composition that features improvisation, electronic music, virtuoso soloists, and incredible visual projections. For the studio recording of this work with other example improvisations, watch this video. Even though improvisation was a major part of classical music, it seems it fell away in the interests of preserving the music in its original form. As Mason Bates puts it, Mothership brings that back. Here are the featured soloists:

John Burgess (Canberra, Australia), electric double bass
Ali Bello (New York), violin
Paulo Calligopoulos (Sau Paulo, Brazil), electric guitar
Su Chang (Beijing, China), guzheng

1:08:01: Barton: Prelude – William Barton, didgeridoo (5:07) – I love William Barton’s improvisation here. Listening to his playing is sheer joy and impresses upon me the incredible number of sounds one instrument can make, such as the didgeridoo.

48:13 (intro at 46:51): Brittan: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (16:35) – If you haven’t heard this piece, be sure to check it out. It features each of the instruments in a modern symphony orchestra and helps audience members match the sound with the instrument that produces it. This is as good a performance of Young Person’s Guide as any I’ve heard. Watch the intro (46:51) if you get a chance.

Renee Fleming

41:20: Mozart: Cara Bell’idol Mio (3:07) – Renee Fleming, soprano with the Sydney Children’s Choir – I forgot how beautiful children’s choirs can be. They convey such a great sense of purity, innocence, and a sweetness that only children’s voices can. When I think about how broken and stressed this world is, listening to this music makes that melt away. This piece features Renee Fleming, opera star extraordinaire, and the Sydney Children’s choir. Check out Renee Fleming’s website – it is very classy. Her voice is captivating, as is this piece by Mozart.

17:56 – Grainger: Arrival Platform Humlet (3:07)
As with all of Grainger’s dances, this one is very playful. It has a mysterious energy as though the character in the piece were plotting something mischievous. I appreciate the contrast between playful, carefree sections and intense explosions of sound.

36:30: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt 4: Danza Final (3:26)
This is some great music from Latin America. The Danza Final really gets my blood pumping and reminds me of one of my favorite drum & bugle corps shows of all time – Blue Devils 1999: Rhythms at the End of Time (click to watch)

1:47:42: Abbas & Jackobsen: Ascending Bird: Suite for String Orchestra – Richard Tognetti and Colin Jackobsen, violinists; Kseniya Simonova, sand artist (7:15)
1:58:56: Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts 5, 6 & 7 (13:06)
3:15: Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture (8:17)
1:20:32: Strauss: Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic (2:19)
22:18 – J.S. Bach: Toccata in F major (7:04) – Cameron Carpenter, organ
32:41: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt. 2: Danza del Trigo (3:09)
1:37:33: Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Mvt. 3 – Stephan Jackiw, violin (6:48)
1:13:08: Constable: Suna – Synergy Percussion Ensemble (3:59)
2:14:46 (encore) Schubert: Rosemunde Overture

Did you like any of these pieces? What stood out to you?

Music in Motion

Marcus High School Band – Flower Mound, Texas

I gained exposure to much of my favorite Classical music through my experience in public school performing arts. Like Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, marching bands and drum & bugle corps animate music with formations, props, and various forms of choreography and dance. These marching ensembles combine art forms in the same way that the opera genre combines vocal and instrumental music, visual art, theater, and technical theater. I am most inspired by those ensembles who choose symphonic pieces such as the Marcus High School Marching Band, Phantom Regiment Drum & Bugle Corps, and Star of Indiana Drum & Bugle Corps.

While Star of Indiana no longer exists, they produced a show called “Blast!”. Instead of performing on a football field with over a hundred people, a couple dozen took the show to the stage. Blast! includes professional brass players, percussionists, and dancers who perform shows on Broadway in the style of drum & bugle corps, but more refined and varied than a typical marching show. Their repertoire includes various famous Classical works as well as jazz, rock, and even techno music. For many young people, just seeing this DVD is inspiration enough to start to play and instrument or take dance lessons.

Many consider Classical music to be boring. These marching and dance ensembles bring out the sheer excitement, electricity, and intense emotion intrinsic in this kind of music. When I write about Classical music, I want to draw from the excitement and show just how much of an incredible experience listening to and performing Classical music can be. I want to set music to videos and slide shows of related paintings, photography, even animated GIFs to convey the meaning and emotion of the music.

Big idea

I want to create a multimedia presentation, perhaps an eBook, on the pieces of music that are most meaningful to me. I want to narrate what is happening in those pieces and what I listen for. I would include pictures, audio clips, videos, and related pieces that remind me of the works being presented. I would discuss some of the music theory behind it, but only in order to shed light on how the composer achieves the affect of the music or to explain why that particular piece is unique.

While I believe presenting facts about the music and its composer is important to developing and enhancing the listener’s appreciation of it, I want to tie in people’s personal experiences with the music. I hope to include prominent reviews of the music and perhaps some short interviews with music professors, performers, and composers. I am also interested in the opinions of those who may not be trained in classical music, but appreciate it as well.

In order to choose the format of my presentation, I plan to do a survey of related literature. This will help me find inspiration and narrow what it is I have to contribute.

Influences:

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
My wife and I attended Fort Worth Symphony concerts on and off for the last several years we’ve lived in Texas. For me, each concert was a delight and I was fully engaged. For Dawn, her levels of delight varied. The times where she enjoyed the concerts the most are when a visual element was added, not to upstage the music, but to enhance the audience’s understanding and imagination of the music. Her appreciation grew when time was taken to highlight sections of the music with imagery.

Two examples are of concerts with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite, and of Holst’s The Planets. For the two suites, which are both based on mythology, paintings of ancient Russian mythology and the story of Daphnis and Chloe were displayed on a large screen above the orchestra. With The Planets, the most recent images taken by NASA of the other 7 planets were displayed in high definition in the most dramatic way. The slide shows were timed to the music so that paintings that inspired greater emotion displayed at an emotional high point in the music.

It gave me much pleasure to see her excited about Classical music. I want to incorporate a visual element to my presentation of classical music if not so others can appreciate it better, than just for her. I love you, Dawn!

Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talk
In this brilliant presentation, Zander used a Chopin piano prelude to prove that everyone can “come to love and understand Classical music.” He spoke about what it is like to perform the music, gave a very simple framework for the form of the music (going from the note B to the note A, the C is played to make the B sound sad, etc), mentioned a few related works (Mozart Symphony No. 40, Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and spoke of vision and following the long line from the beginning to the end (a life lesson).

I appreciated how he validated that many don’t have an interest in classical music, some are lulled to sleep, and some lost focus after a couple minutes and wonder “What’s for lunch?” I think it is important to validate people’s objections to listening to and appreciating it. The way Benjamin Zander overcame this is by relating the music to something personal to the audience. He told a story of how a listener was impacted by this and was able to mourn the death of his brother for the first time by listening to the Chopin prelude. This is one approach that I want to use in advocating for classical music.

Those are the two biggest influences. In future posts, I will discuss other media that influence my desire to write, including:

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000
Blast!
Keeping Score (PBS)
The Philadelphia Orchestra filing for bankruptcy
Dan Pink – TMEA Keynote speech (from his book, A Whole New Mind)

Until then, thanks for reading!