Simple contentment: Larsson

Today’s clip depicting contentment comes from Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). The title, Pastoral, is indicative of a lifestyle in the countryside herding animals and living simply. Art, literature, and music have characterized it for centuries. Famous examples of this are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. If you’ve never heard these pieces, I recommend them. Much too charming to pass up.

I have often heard that the people who live the most fulfilling lives live the most simple ones. That is captured in Larsson’s Pastoral. The flute solo in the beginning of this clip has a playful innocence that, when joined with the warmth of the strings, is absolutely delightful. Larsson helps us feel at ease with simple melodies and harmonies, major chords, and a softer dynamic. There is very little dissonance, and when there is, it is to foster an even greater relaxed feeling. It is hard to feel anything but content when listening to this music. Enjoy!

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Serene/content: Debussy

I thought you could use a break from all of that fear-mongering I did last week. So this week, I hope to resolve all of that tension. That is all Classical music is, really: tension and relaxation. Conflict and resolution. When music theorists talk about “functional music,” that is what they mean. There are certain notes, chords, and orchestrations whose function is to cause tension and there are certain ones that resolve tension. The best composers delay the resolution as long as possible, drawing your ear in and then delivering great satisfaction when it comes. It’s like the anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning. Ok, time for some definitions:

content |kənˈtent| – adjective – in a state of peaceful happiness

serene |səˈrēn| – adjective – calm, peaceful, and untroubled; tranquil
or as a noun – an expanse of clear sky or calm sea

I love the noun serene. If gives me such a great canvas on which to put my impressions of this music.

Clair de lune is the third movement of a piano suite by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) called Suite bergamasque. Though Debussy was mainly an Impressionist composer, this piece is in the Romantic style. While this piece really needs no introduction, I will provide some context to help enrich your listening experience. If it is distracting, then just play the clips and relax!

Clair de lune is French for “moonlight.” While I recommend listening to the whole suite, it is self-evident why this piece is so popular when you listen to it. The piece was named after a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Here is the English translation:

Moonlight
Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

You may hear this read aloud in the original French as well as English here.

The first clip is the essence of contentment for me. As some would say, it takes me to my “happy place.” I imagine myself lying in a boat in calm waters at night, looking up at the moon and stars, feeling a gentle breeze across my face, hearing the sound of it passing through the trees, ruffling the leaves.

This next section seems to wisp me away to a peaceful, beautiful environment. As I listen, I feel my muscles in my back, shoulders, and neck relax. Here’s another definition for you:

sublime |səˈblīm| – adjective – of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe

And that’s it! I’m not going to put too many demands on you this week by going into to much musical detail. I just want to enjoy the music with you and exchange ideas on its affect.

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.

Fantasia and imagination

I turned 16 years old on January 1, 2000 – Y2K. While many people were huddled in their bomb shelters at home surrounded by months of non-perishable food stuffs due to the Y2K scare, my family and I went to the local IMAX theater to see Disney’s Fantasia 2000. This event changed my life.

Fantasia is another form of music in motion. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski teamed up to select seven orchestral works that were animated for the movie theater. Some of these animations were abstract, some depicted real stories with characters, and some featured Disney characters, such as Mickey in the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. It was released in 1940 and was to be the first of an on going series of Classical music pieces set to animation that would rotate in and out of the theater. No pieces were added, but Fantasia was re-released in theatres again in 1985 and it was remastered for a 1990 release for VHS as well.

Roy Disney, producer of Fantasia 2000

Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) used the profits from the re-release of Fantasia to produce Fantasia 2000. While the original Fantasia used many new animation techniques and “Fantasound,” one of the first multi-channel recording systems, Fantasia 2000 used many new techniques as well. Most notable among them were IMAX technology and computer animation. The commentary and special features on the DVD are fascinating.

For this new Fantasia, Roy Disney teamed with James Levine to select these eight pieces:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 1 (shortened version)
*Respighi: The Pines of Rome, Mvts 1, 3 & 4 (shortened versions)
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro
Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals, Finale (shortened version)
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Grieg: Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1-4
*Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts. 4-7

*Works I’d like to discuss on this blog in detail.

Here is the official movie trailer:

This film demonstrates something I call “mutual inspiration.” When art media are crossed, such as Classical music and animation (visual art), the artists from both sides may be inspired by one another. Many of the animators for Fantasia 2000 noted that they chose to pursue a career in animation because they had watched the original Fantasia and saw how the music could inspire great visual art. I pursued a career in music in part because of how exciting Classical music became when I learned to use my imagination and picture in my mind what the music was depicting. Disney’s achievement in this film was his use of animation to enhance the tangible emotions found in Classical music.

In future posts, I want to explore the way Classical music expresses emotions in ways that few other art forms can. One possible format is to pick one emotion per week and choose a different piece each day that expresses that emotion in a profound way. Emotions may include anger, rage, fear/suspense, ecstasy, peace/tranquility, and the various emotions wrapped up in love.

Getting back on topic, Fantasia 2000 is an influence because it demonstrates the great potential of human imagination in relation to Classical music. Between the two Fantasias, 15 pieces were animated out of the thousands of powerful, inspiring works the genre has to offer. This is not to mention the thousands of ways these pieces could be animated.

In my experience, it is impossible to enjoy Classical music without using my imagination and developing specific images, ideas, or characters in my mind. To me, the music has no meaning if it does not speak to some part of human experience, including my specific memories: love gained, love lost or love missed, elation in success or depression in failure, innocence or the loss of it, loneliness, personal intimacy, and divine transcendence.

Get it? Use you imagination!

Here is a quote from my next topic, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra:

“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