I finally got around to posting this video of my performance with the Denver Pops Orchestra last October. It is better than I remembered. Not a technically perfect performance, but I think it has enough character and flash to compensate for any minor errors. To quote the great Ludwig van Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play with out passion is inexcusable.”
I’ve stayed pretty busy the last several months. I worked with a local high school marching band last fall that made finals in the state marching band competition, I launched a new website for the Denver Pops Orchestra (visit it here), and I became an affiliate faculty clarinet teacher at a private Christian college, also nearby.
I’m feeling inspired to write again but I’m not sure where I will find the time. I have so many unrealized ideas to explore on this publication and I am tempted to stay up late a couple evenings per week to flesh them out. Wish me luck. And feel free to post your feedback on the video, too.
Hommage à M. De Falla is an exciting, visceral piece that was composed in the style of a traditional Spanish dance known as flamenco. Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) was arguably the most famous composer in Spanish history and lived in Madrid, Paris, and finally Argentina after the Spanish civil war in 1939. This work is especially well-written for unaccompanied clarinet because Kovács made the clarinet sound like several different instruments, often at the same time. For example, in the beginning, the clarinet sounds like trumpets playing a fanfare or horns at the start of a hunt. During the fast section, the clarinet sounds much like Spanish guitar strumming major and minor chords and finger picking between two strings.
What comes to mind when you think of Romantic music? An intimate, candle-lit dinner with a violinist serenading you while you eat? You are not alone in thinking this because music from the Romantic Era of Western Music History (1815-1910) contains the bulk of pieces that characterize romantic love.
Romantic era composers, such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), have a flair for the dramatic. Their themes often depict the supernatural, nature, medieval chivalry, extreme subjectivity, emotionalism, nationalism, and love gained and love lost. Just think of a Leo Tolstoy novel like Anna Karinena which was recently popularized in the 2012 motion picture starring Keira Knightley. The settings for that novel and the composition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are similar. They both take place in czarist Russia in the late 19th century.
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the most dramatic, meaningful, touching, beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. When I hear the opening theme from the first movement, Moderato, I imagine a harsh Russian winter. The sense of longing in this clip is universal – a longing to feel warm and comforted.
The second theme in this movement is a surprise because of how delicate and lyrical it is. The orchestra is silent while the piano soloist expresses its most deep, intimate sentiments. What do you long for? What makes you think, “if only I had this one thing, then all of the worries and heartache in my life would be over”? The listener may breathe a sigh of relief just listening to this clip, imagining that his longing for satisfaction was fulfilled.
I love how unpredictable Rachmaninov can be. He takes us on a grand emotional journey, often a roller-coaster, around corners we’d never expect. One moment we’re floating on clouds, feeling completely relaxed and peaceful; the next moment we’re bubbling with excitement and wonder. Listen for the slow tempo with the soft, smooth style at first which breaks away to fast 16th notes in the piano and a more detached style.
At the climax of Moderato, the feeling of longing gives way to desperation, becoming louder, higher in pitch, and increasingly dissonant. When the first theme of this movement comes back, it signals a kind of dramatic resignation. All hopes have been dashed.
“Dashed hopes” – Lady Mary on the PBS drama, Downton Abbey
The outro, or coda, takes us from resignation to disillusionment followed closely by anger. The music mocks, “How could you have longed for that? Did you really think things would turn out that well?” The cellos play just the first half of the lyrical second theme, but this time it has a more sarcastic feel and in a minor key instead of a major key. The anger is signified by the accented piano on the lower notes played by the left hand, a gradually increasing tempo (musical term is accelerando), and an ending in a minor key that seems to communicate that this movement simply could not be over fast enough!
If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned. The adagio movement is coming up next and is filled with some of the most beautiful stuff yet. Thank you for reading and commenting.
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.
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.
Meditation from “Thais” is a piece for violin and orchestra played in between scenes in the tragic opera, Thais by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The story is about a monk who travels to Egypt in order to convert a woman, Thais, but falls in love with her in the process. After she converts and comes under the care of the church, the monk renounces his religion in favor of pursuing Thais romantically only to find her on her death bed from illness. I love a good tragedy, don’t you?
This piece is another great example of emotion in Classical music. The sound of the violin could not be sweeter or more passionate. The vibrato (fast wavering of pitch) in the violin is meant to sound like the natural human singing voice, making the violin one of the most personal and human-sounding instruments. I love the way this piece depicts both a romantic love and a heavenly, divine love. The melody in the second clip begins the same way as the first clip, but it then takes a turn toward a higher, more brilliant sentiment than before. As the strings crescendo (get louder) in the background and the key changes, it seems that we’ve arrived somewhere we didn’t expect: a pleasant surprise.
It is clear that romantic love, longing, and passion is one of the emotions that Classical music expresses best. For me, this music both creates longing and fulfills it at the same time. There are hundreds of selections I could have included in this series and I will be writing about many of them in the future. Stay tuned.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.
To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I feel a longing for love so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.
Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”
The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.
But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.
Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace. It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.
You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.
This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after six years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.
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, clarinetteachers, 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.
This weeks emotion in Classical music is love. I’m not sure if I agree with my Apple dictionary’s definition of love:
love |ləv| – noun – an intense feeling of deep affection
I’ve often heard that love isn’t an emotion because of how complex it is. For example, one can be in love but not feel loving. The thing is, love is complicated. It is risky, exposing one’s faults and true self to another. It is risky because when a person loves, she has more to lose. There is potential for loss in love. Loss of one’s sense of self or the loss of a lover. There is betrayal, the building and breaking trust, coping with loneliness during a loved one’s absence, and facing discontentment when a person doesn’t live up his promise and doesn’t ultimately satisfy the longing of the heart. Longing or desire is probably a more accurate term to describe this weeks music.
Imagine that you have dreamed of someone your whole life who would rescue you out of your bad situation and fall deeply in love with you. Let’s say you pray for this person to appear when you are falsely accused of something, and he does. This man, a knight, challenges your accuser and defeats him in a fight, driving him away. He then turns to you and declares his love and intention to marry you. This love seems pure, simple, and honest:
The problem is, you know very little about the person who you agreed to marry. This was the case for the character Elsa in the opera Lohengrinby Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Even though this knight insisted he was the real thing, Elsa could not help but feel uneasy about this decision. Nevertheless, the wedding was planned and Elsa was about to see her dreams come true right before her eyes. But she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she can’t trust this man, even during the scene right before the wedding, known as Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral. Though the harmony here sounds positive and celebratory, you can hear the tension and conflict in the music:
Wagner uses diminished chords and non-chord tones here to bring about dissonance which gives us a feeling of uneasiness. When the horns enter in this clip, it is almost startling how loud they are. It is like they are trying to force positive feelings upon us with their overconfidence. In the end, Elsa’s fears were confirmed when the knight’s true identity was revealed. He had only married Elsa to save her from her accuser. Elsa had married someone who turned out to be a stranger. He left her for his political career and Elsa died of a broken heart in the end. The famous wedding march, the one we all think of when we think of weddings, first appeared in Lohengrin in the scene after Elsa’s Procession. It is hard to believe that it has appeared in so many given the plot of the opera for which it was written!
Every genre of music writes about love, but only Classical music seems to capture the scope of emotions and complexity with any degree of elegance. The emotion that is most portrayed is longing. Longing to be loved, accepted, cared for, and to escape loneliness, worthlessness and death. That is something we all have in common, which is why I believe that Classical music is for everyone.
“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
At heart, I believe that Classical music isn’t just for everyone, but it is for everything. There is Classical music for every occasion: working, relaxing, eating, drinking, watching a movie (most are orchestral scores), studying, dating, breaking up, getting married, fighting, dying, dreaming, praying, laughing, mourning…you get the idea. Songza has developed an excellent, Pandora-style radio that is meant to play music for every occasion. I would love to see a version within the Classical music genre.
Michael Tilson Thomas’ quote (above) speaks about the nature of our humanity. Our wide spectrum of emotions is something that makes us uniquely human. Over the course of history, we have turned to music to express emotions because our more left-brained forms of communication were insufficient. Classical music has expressed these emotions to a much greater extent than any other musical genre. I would argue that it has also expressed these emotions more deeply and completely than any other genre. But this is a matter of personal taste, of course.
I have chosen to advocate for Classical music because it possesses deep, personal meaning to me. Very personal. It isn’t the product of a bunch of dead white guys as popular culture would characterize it. Its meaning is simply not obvious to most because there are no words in orchestral music. The composer allows the listener to hear critically, to ask “what is this music saying? What does it express? What is the mood of this section? How does this make me feel? What images come to mind? For which experience in my life could this music serve as a soundtrack? Or for which daily activity?” I also hope to answer, “How does the composer achieve this emotional effect?”
Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion (1980)
In the coming weeks, I hope to show you just how much Classical music is personally meaningful, one emotion at a time. I have chosen eight emotions based on this wiki article to write about, one emotion per week. For each emotion, I will explore one representative piece per day, five or six days per week. Here are the emotions I hope to cover:
On a personal note, this series is meant to exercise my writing muscles and develop consistency. I am purposely giving myself very little time to write each post so there will be no room for my perfectionist tendencies. Wish me luck! This week: fear & anxiety. Enjoy!