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?

desert1

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.

Longing: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is a reposting from my series on emotion in Classical music from September 2012.

RachmaninovSergei 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 get a sense of longing 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 seven years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.

Love and loss: Piano Concerto No. 2

Beach-Candlelight-Dinner

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.

kinopoisk.ruRomantic 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.

Life and Death: Symphonic Dances

0What do journalists and Classical composers have in common? They both love a good conflict. On news programs, especially the 24-hour cable networks, the stories are often about violence, terrorism, or war, and when they don’t report on that, they bring in two people with opposite views to debate current events. On the other hand, composers write about conflict in more abstract ways, depicting battle, or a struggle between two extremes, such as good versus evil, love versus hate, or life versus death.

In the case of the final movement from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the struggle depicted is life versus death. As you can hear from the clip above, the introduction of this movement is very tense, like the flurry of activity of soldiers before battle.

It is common for Romantic era composers to choose a melody or motif to represent a specific character or idea. German composer Richard Wagner was famous for this, and musicologists eventually named this technique leitmotif. In Rachmaninov’s case, there are two leitmotifs in this movement – one for death and one for life. The theme that depicts life was taken from Rachmaninov’s earlier choral work, Vespers, in which it characterized the resurrection of Christ. It would seem that it was modified from its original form to take on a more suspenseful, dance-like character for Symphonic Dances:

The theme Rachmaninov used to portray the idea of death is quoted from a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn called Dies Irae. It means day of wrath.

Dies Irae

The clip below plays it in two versions: the fast version played by the strings and a slower, more pure version played by the brass. The fast version modifies the rhythm and plays it twice as fast. The musical term for that rhythmic modification is known as diminution. Both of these represent death throughout the movement.

There comes a time in every conflict where the outcome must be decided, and such is the case during the climax of this movement. Rachmaninov employs the use of power chords in this section to drive home the level of intensity in the conflict between life and death. I have always loved the way this composer writes a very appealing passage and then takes is a step further. He writes 5 seconds of power chords and then modulates the key up a full step to add excitement. You may have to listen closely to the first half of this clip again to catch it.

Similar to movies where the hero gets beat up at first when fighting mano a mano with the villain, the same seems to be true here as the dies irae theme takes over in the second half of this clip played by French horns. This time the rhythm is played at half the speed of normal. Instead of diminution, where it is played twice as fast, playing at half speed is known as augmentation.

In the end, though, Rachmaninov picks life over death. He wrote on the subject of death in many of his works to stir up the tension and intrigue of conflict, and in so doing, the listener’s interest. Listen to how he modified the resurrection theme to sound more heroic and triumphant:

RachmaninovAre you enjoying the series on Rachmaninov so far? There is so much to listen for, I find myself listening to his music over and over and hearing something new each time. I have at least three more pieces in mind that I’d like to discuss, so stay tuned.

Dance of Death: Symphonic Dances

Ballroom dancers

Ballroom dancers

Continuing my series on Rachmaninov is the second movement from Symphonic Dances: Andante con moto (moderately slow with motion). This movement is a more obvious symphonic dance, a waltz to be precise. But I think you’ll find it very different from, say, a Johann Strauss II (1825-1899 aka “Waltz King”) waltz from the very first few notes.

A Strauss Waltz is typically in a major key and has a light, happy feeling. Rachmaninov’s waltz is in a minor key that modulates often, giving it an ominous, uneasy feeling. Some Strauss waltzes begin with a trumpet fanfare made up of major chords to announce the start of the dance, so dancers may find a partner. Rachmaninov’s fanfare is more like a broken train horn, a dissonant alarm from the peace and calm with which we ended the previous movement:

After some commentary in the form of a violin solo that settles into the minor key, the orchestra sinks into this beautiful, elegant, yet haunting melody played by English horn.

This melody of Rachmaninov’s is brilliant for two reasons. First, it has what every appealing phrase of music has: an antecedent and a consequent. A question and answer. Listen to the clip again. In the first half of the clip, the pitch is continually going upwards, the same way the inflection in our voice does when asking a question. The last note of the question is the note D, which leads us to the first note of the answer, G. Remember the song Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music? It is a song to teach how to sing the notes of a scale using Solfege. Remember the line, “That will lead us back to Do“? Well in this case, because the piece is in the key of G minor, Do is the note G. So is the note D. What are the last two words Julie Andrews sings? “So Do.” Question, answer. That is why it is so satisfying to listen to music. There are questions and answers; tension and relaxation.

Solfege

“Solfege”

The second reason this melody is so appealing is because it draws us in. Rachmaninov only features the note G (or Do) once in any significant way. Otherwise, the other notes dance around it, avoiding it as long as possible. He knew that our ears are always subconsciously yearning to hear Do. Every good composer delays this satisfaction to keep our interest.

I titled this post “Dance of Death” because the melody and harmony are so haunting. Please read my earlier post, “Fear of Death: Rachmaninov” where I explained the character of this piece in greater detail. This is the clip from that article of the climax of the movement:

What a devilishly delightful bit of writing that is! I love how Rachmaninov takes his original melody and builds upon it, going beyond its original form to add drama and suspense. After the fear of death rears its ugly head, the waltz speeds up into what I imagine to be a chase scene. It gets faster, louder, and seems to have a violent conclusion as the orchestra beats us over the head with the loud, short, unison rhythms that some conductors call “punches.”

Investigator_Medium_Size.30223337_stdThis whole movement could be imagined as one great chase scene, from the prison sirens going off at the beginning, to the slow, sneaky escape in the moonlight, to a dramatic chase by police, ending with the escape and fiendish laughter of the villain. But you don’t have to take my interpretation. Buy Symphonic Dances, listen to the whole piece, and use your imagination. Look for the questions and answers, the suspense, the “Ti-Do‘s,” “So-Do‘s” and the changes of character. If you learn to do this, I promise you’ll never be bored by Classical music again.

Drudgery and dreams: Symphonic Dances

RachmaninovIt is my pleasure to begin my series on Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), one of the better-known composers in Classical music. His music is considered late Romantic period, meaning that it has an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, emotion, and is more free-form than the logical structures and subtlety of the Classical period. Rachmaninov is also known for his beautiful melodies, extraordinary piano compositions and performances (note the big hands in the picture!), and uniquely Russian style.

Most of his compositions were written in czarist Russia before the revolution in 1917, when he fled to the United States after losing all of his property and status as a bourgeois. Rachmaninov did compose five major pieces while in the US however, the last of which was Symphonic Dances (Opus 45). A piece with three movements, Symphonic Dances is much like a symphony for full orchestra, but lacking the slow movement.

There are many exciting themes I’ve discovered in Symphonic Dances: the Drudgery of Everyday Life, the Dream of a Better Life, the Game of Life (not the trademarked one), and The Struggle Between Life and Death. I will cover the first two themes in this post concerning the first dance, entitled “Non-Allegro” (not fast).

Imagine the life of a coal miner. I recently watched October Sky for the first time and I think this first movement from Symphonic Dances would make an excellent part of the soundtrack.

Coal Mining060

Imagine waking up before dawn to the sound of light rain drops against his window, getting dressed, leaving the house half-asleep, and boarding the elevator down, down, down into the mine. Then WHAM! Explosives! (symbolized by the loud, dissonant string chord progression and timpani)

When I hear this main theme, I think of the drudgery of life. How we all have to work even when we do not enjoy our jobs. The driving string ostinato in this clip may symbolize just how brutal working can feel, a sort of savage dance. The repeating minor arpeggios in the clarinet and oboe melody remind me of the repetitive tasks that must be completed.

Perhaps in the drudgery of work there is danger, like in coal mining, where explosives are involved and people are working in less-than-safe conditions. Or perhaps there is worry about payroll cuts and layoffs. This can create suspense, as evident in this clip:

The music here has such a finality, particularly when the orchestra ends these phrases on a minor chord with such certainty. It is amongst these sentiments that one may be inclined to dream. To escape to fantasy. The middle section of Non-Allegro expresses this.

Broad landscapeThe impressions are of floating among clouds where, out of a mist, comes the feeling of longing for a sense of safety and relaxation. Our coal miner is on his break and has “gone to his happy place.” The alto saxophone solo in this clip is rare in orchestral music. Did you think the saxophone could sound so sweet?

While this dream may seem possible for a moment, as expressed by the hopeful-sounding major chords in this next clip, the mood sinks back to drudgery again in the return of the main theme.

In the end of this movement, I imagine our worker going home after a long day, meeting with a friend, and getting some words of wisdom: “Learn to accept your present reality, look for the little things in life that make you happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.” Perhaps our working character goes to sleep in this last clip, again to the sound of rain drops against his window, with a lighter heart and feeling encouraged.

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.

Longing: Rachmaninov

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.

Fury: Stravinsky

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger
rage |rāj| – noun – violent, uncontrollable anger

As my final post on anger & fury, I chose the 5th movement from The Firebird Suite, entitled “The Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” by Igor Stravinsky. As you can see above, fury and rage have similar definitions. The idea of uncontrollable anger fits these clips. In the ballet, The Firebird, the main character, Prince Ivan, confronts King Kastchei and is attacked by the king’s magical creatures. The Firebird, who promised to help Ivan, puts the magical creatures under his spell and makes them do an “infernal dance.” It is a very intense scene.

The writers at Disney took the story a different direction. In Fantasia 2000, The Firebird is a creature that was awakened deep inside a volcano by a delicate fairy. The volcano erupts, spewing fire and ash as the Firebird pursues the fairy until catching it, swallowing it in fire and lava. The bird in this story has a rather demonic character and seems to be filled with pure rage. This was not the sort of anger that could be reasoned with. Here is the opening of the movement:

There are a number of musical reasons why this clip from The Firebird Suite sounds so furious. It opens with a loud, orchestral bang that can be startling. After that, there is a melody in the horns and tuba that is played off the beat instead of on the beat, like most melodies. This creates a jarring effect. The horns are playing in their low range, similar to the way they did in my earlier clip from Shostakovich 5, where they sounded downright mean. The melody is full of half-step intervals which create dissonance. There is no chord progression here – it is just a minor key pedal, as though you had hit a low note on the piano while pushing the pedal. It is sustained throughout the melody; suspended. Ever feel like time stands still when you’re angry? That is what is happening here harmonically. After the second orchestral bang, the horns jump up two octaves to their upper range. This is a composer’s trick to add intensity to any melody by taking it up an octave. But Stravinsky is an over-achiever by going up two octaves.

The end of this work becomes even more out of control as the notes get faster and faster, the trumpets play fast, double-tongued notes, the trombones glissando (slide in between notes), and the biggest orchestral bang slams the door on us.

I hope you enjoyed listening to this aggressive Classical music. There are many great compilations that have titles like “Classical Thunder” that portray these emotions to an even greater extent. Here are some other pieces that display fury and anger, to name only a few:

Rachmaninov: Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Op. 3/2, “The Bells Of Moscow” – #2 In C Sharp Minor
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: I The Adoration of the Earth: Young Girls’ Dances
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: II The Sacrifice: Glorification
Orff: O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
Verdi: Dies irae from Requiem Mass

Next week: Longing, love & passion.

Fear of Death: Rachmaninov

The emotions for this week’s Classical music picks are fear and anxiety. The second movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances expresses both very elegantly.

fear |fi(ə)r| – noun – an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat

anxiety |aNGˈzī-itē| – noun ( pl. anxieties ) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was well-known for his fixation on death. If you were to listen to all of his works, you’d find that he used melodies associated with the subject in a large percentage of them. The main melody that can be found over and over in his compositions is the dies irae theme, meaning “day of wrath.” Wiki has a great article on this that includes an audio clip of dies irae in its original form.

Symphonic Dances is about a fear of death and its accompanying anxiety. Death is both imminent and uncertain to most, regardless of religious belief. Rachmaninov addresses this in the most elegant, stylized way. His music has a gothic feel. It reminds me of gothic spires on medieval churches, gargoyles, and Halloween.

This clip demonstrates a growing anxiety turning into outright fear. The piece up until this point expresses much brooding and anticipation. The meter of this piece is 3 beats in a measure, but it is a quick 3, suggesting a waltz. It’s very grotesque to waltz to death music, wouldn’t you say?

This section also demonstrates fear by using dissonance. Dissonance happens when we hear notes that are not normally in the key, or when the key in which the composer is writing shifts unexpectedly. This throws off our expectations as listeners and makes us feel uneasy. As the music gets louder and faster, the intensity builds and the immediate danger is clear.

Fear of death, gargoyles, or goths (I was in high school) is normal. In fact, I would say that our culture is largely based upon fear. Classical music has a way of dealing with and processing through fear and anxiety. If I’m not feeling fearful, then listening to this music is exciting, like seeing a suspenseful movie. If I am feeling fearful, then it gives a name and a face to the emotion, helping me understand and overcome it. Try it sometime.