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.

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Anger in grief: Shostakovich

As you may already know, anger is not only an emotion but it is part of the grieving process. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

I believe much of the grief Dimitri Shostakovich experienced during the oppression of Joseph Stalin is expressed in anger. Much of his art was suppressed and many of his countrymen were imprisoned and murdered. What Shostakovich did not have the freedom to express with words, he wrote into his music.

Bitter anger is the only emotion I can take away when listening to today’s clip from Symphony No. 5, Mvt 1. The piano, horns and trumpets are playing in their lowest range. It is not common to hear a piano solo that is this low because it would not project over the orchestra in a normal context. But Shostakovich removes the rest of the orchestra so the piano accompaniment is crystal clear. When the horns enter, they sound like trombones at first. Most people don’t realize that the horn has the widest range of any brass instrument. They can play as low or lower than a tuba and higher than most trumpets, with little effort. Of course, in this register the horn sounds raspy and mean. Perfect for this emotional context. The same is true for the trumpets in this clip. Even through it is members of the New York Philharmonic playing, their tone here is intentionally ugly.

Michael Tilson Thomas has a great commentary of this melody on Keeping Score. He says that the fourth note of the melody (listen again if you need to) is irregular. It doesn’t fit the key, which means we can label it a dissonant note. Because it is one half-step lower than we expect it to be, it pushes our buttons as listeners. Also, if you were to look at the notes of this melody on the page, they form the shape of a valley. The notes go down in the first half of the melody, and just when it doesn’t seem they can go any lower, Shostakovich takes them one step lower than that before coming back up. The lowest note in the melody is also the lowest note a trumpet can play, an F-sharp. Interesting the that the grief chart is also in the shape of a valley.

Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich’s most famous piece. It is filled with interesting moments like these. Be sure to listen to the whole symphony if you get a chance.