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.

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Love is complicated: Wagner

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 Lohengrin by 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.