Serenity in nature: Respighi

Many listen to Classical music because of its capacity to relax and intrigue the listener. This is certainly the case in Pines of the Janiculum, the third movement from Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). Janiculum Hill is a landmark in western Rome that has some historical and mythological significance. Click the link to read about it on Wikipedia.

Pines of Rome is four programmatic movements – there is a story in each. The scenes take place in a village with children playing, in dark catacombs, climbing a mountain, and on a hill at night overlooking a beautiful city with nightingales chirping in the background, which is the case for this movement. Each movement depicts the great diversity pine trees around the city of Rome.

Pines of the Janiculum begins and ends with beautiful, extended clarinet solos. This excerpt from the first solo is incredibly sentimental. It brings to mind all that is beautiful, sweet, peaceful, good, warm, and right in the world. The character of it is also playful and not too serious, but one of great contentment. The soft dynamic, warm-sounding string chords, and the beautiful tone quality of the clarinet help bring these sentiments about.

This next clip is simply breath-taking. The orchestra seems to sigh, as though it is taking in a beautiful view of nature for the first time. Though I have probably heard it a thousand times, I am often moved to tears by this section. The harmony is mysterious and beautiful. As it gets louder, the chord progression moves in a direction that is a surprise, which helps draw in the listener. The effect is always deeper relaxation.

To people who say they don’t like Classical music I would say listen to all four movements of Pines of Rome. Respighi speaks to the human experience in this piece in a tangible way.

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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