Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams (b. 1947) is a piece that both expresses elation and makes me elated when listening. It is what I call “go music.” There is so much energy, optimism, brilliance and character, I can’t help but feel invigorated.
John Adams is a minimalist composer. Most people think that minimalism has no melody and simply repeats over and over again. This is not true. Minimalism has a long melody over time that doesn’t stay the same, it is always different. Always evolving.
You’ll notice that in this first clip, everything starts on the beat with the wood block: the fast clarinet notes, the trumpets, and the trombones. But as things evolve, they get off the beat and become more and more syncopated. It reminds me of dancing.
A few minutes in, there is someone who enters the dance who doesn’t want to do it the same way. Perhaps an older, heavy man who doesn’t enjoy it as much. The rhythm in this clip still has the wood block and the eighth-note motor in the strings, but the basses and tubas play a a rhythm that is slower and disjointed from the rest. This is a phenomenon known as polyrhythm. The effect on the listener is the same as if she were to pat her head and rub her stomach. You actually have to think and be engaged to listen to this kind of music.
This final movement of Mathis Der Maler by Paul Hindemith is an exciting one filled with suspense, aggression, loss, and majesty. The title of this movement (“Temptation of St. Anthony”) illustrates one of the panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) and suggests a certain storyline. In this case, however, I have chosen to make up my own. Though much of Classical music was written for various events, or to tell a specific story (this is called programmatic music), a listener’s experience of the music does not have to be limited to the piece’s subject. Even vocal music can invoke different meanings from what the lyrics suggest.
The story this music tells me is one of heroes, sinister villains, battle, defeat and triumph.
The introduction begins with many stops and starts, like an approaching thunderstorm. This clip depicts flashes of lightning and thunder.
Shortly after, there is a sinister sounding theme that is repeated many times in this movement. The picture I get is of the villain arriving on the scene, hell-bent on our hero’s destruction. And for some reason, I picture him riding a chariot. I suppose it is because of the driving rhythmic pattern, something Hindemith is well known for.
I have memories of my clarinet teacher in my undergraduate, Dan Silver, making absolutely sure that I didn’t cheat this rhythm, but made it exact: the dotted-eighth sixteenth. Can you hear the “dot da-dot da-dot da-dot da-dot” in the background?
As I imagine this battle progressing, one side of the conflict scores some pretty big blows. These come in the form of lethal punches or stabbings. It reminds me of the music in one of my favorite comedies of all time, The Princess Bride, when the six-fingered man stabs Inigo Montoya during an epic sword fight.
I never got into heavy metal, hardcore punk, or screamo as a teenager, but I do enjoy music that displays pure aggression. I have always appreciated fast, loud, and scary when it comes to symphonic music. I have moods where the more brass and percussion, the better. That is why I am such a big Drum & Bugle Corps junkie. Even within Classical or symphonic music there are moments where the music refuses to be tamed. It takes on a life of its own as a snarling monster, a daredevil, a nuclear explosion, and goes on a murderous rampage. I will be sure to include examples of aggression when I do my series on emotion. Since ‘aggression’ isn’t a direct emotion, I imagine I will call it ‘anger’ or ‘fury’. Fury sounds more dramatic.
This next clip is another great example of mounting aggression. In the chaos, we see our hero revealed at just the right moment to score a major blow on the enemy.
Because of the episodic nature of this movement, I will not take you through each moment in the piece. You should just buy it on Amazon or iTunes or listen to it on Spotify (NEW!)
There is a slow section that proceeds this minor victory that is more subdued, mournful, and disillusioned. It is an excellent reminder of the fact that people die in wars. That there is a great cost that comes with victory. That there is an undertone of death and loss of innocence.
The end of the piece is a brass fanfare. Hindemith’s orchestration here sounds like a pipe organ. The feel here is grandiose. Majestic. I get the sense that our hero has won the war, returned home victorious, and has been summoned to the king’s throne room to be given the highest honor for bravery.
Thanks for reading about these three unique movements. Help me out – go to Facebook and vote on what I should write about next. I have a couple of ideas and I’d appreciate your input. Also, if you are reading, feel free to leave comments here as well. Thanks!
Movement two of Mathis der Maler is an interlude between the outer movements. This movement does not appear to be directly related to the plot of Paul Hindemith’s opera, Mathis der Maler, except as an orchestral interlude between scenes. The title “Entombment” reminds me of another famous Renaissance painting, though not by Matthias Grunewald. The Entombment of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio depicts the burial of Jesus as written in Mark 15:42-47. You may imagine those biblical series of events while listening to this movement, if you wish.
Regardless of what imagery you associate this music with, the thin orchestration and increasing dissonance in the harmony suggest loneliness and a sense of anticipation or brooding.
The imagery that comes to my mind in this movement is a bitterly cold winder. It is dark, quiet, the wind is blowing in my face, and it’s snowing. I imagine walking alone in the middle of a forest. I’m lost and have been for several hours. My confidence level is down and I am questioning how this happened and if I will find my way back before my light is completely gone. Even though I sense the danger, I am tired and can still enjoy the simple beauty of nature, even in the cold. There is something so peaceful and mysterious about snow falling. Watching it can send me into a bit of a trance.
This movement has one theme that is modified as the movement progresses:
The second time we hear the theme, it is inverted. That is to say, the notes on the staff are flipped upside-down. Instead of the melody going up in pitch and then back down, the melody first goes down and then back up. This part is more hymn-like. Notice the eerie loneliness portrayed by the flute solo in this clip.
As is Hindemith’s tendency, the theme is developed into a climax later in the movement. The dissonance grows in the supporting chords played by the low brass and strings in this section.
Ending on a strong major chord would sound very final, but that is not how this movement ends. It becomes increasingly dissonant until it finally comes to a rest with a soft major chord. The feeling here is of finally sitting down and resting tired feet after a long day.
Slow movements of symphonies tend to portray the composer’s more introverted side. Instead of action, speech, and scenery, it is more an inner thought life that is expressed. If I imagine myself alone in a forest, I am left with only my thoughts and nature. As the theme intensifies and reaches that final major chord, I imagine my thoughts developing and solidifying. The tension in the harmony (or disharmony) reminds me of how my inner thought life is often filled with dissonance, worry, or conflict. I imagine you have similar patterns of thought from time to time.
Music is great for helping process through many thoughts and emotions. Be sure to stay tuned for the final movement of Mathis der Maler as well as my series on emotions where I pick an emotion each week and write about five pieces that speak to that emotion. I’m looking forward to it.
Ever thought about angels? Do you like art from the Renaissance? How about hiking? If yes, then you can relate to this piece.
Paul Hindemith was born in Germany in the late 1800s and lived and composed through two world wars. Mathis der Maler (translated Matthias the Painter) was an opera about the life of a painter. The opera was composed during the time Nazis came to power in Germany and was suppressed by the party. There are some interesting details about this in this wiki article.
Hindemith composed a purely instrumental symphony based on themes in the opera. The three movements in this symphony capture the essence of Matthias Grunewald’s Renaissance era paintings, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515). This is another example of art inspiring art.
The Angelic Concert is on the second view of the altarpiece. The detail is incredible. You can hear the various depictions of angels and their instruments in the music from the very beginning of the movement. Here are two examples:
In the first example, it is the shimmering major chords that seem to reflect a powerful, yet innocent angelic beauty. In the second half of this example, it is the violins playing very high in the background that reminds me of angels.
Other than those examples, this piece reminds me of hiking. The first couple of measures reminds me of waking up at dawn, getting out of bed, eating a modest breakfast, and going out the door before it gets too hot. Everything is still, quiet, and dark.
What follows are a series of sights one may encounter on a hiking trail from trees, birds, streams, water falls, large and small rocks, and wind in the trees to feeling tired, taking a break, or snapping some quick photographs. Something I love about Hindemith is the way his music always moves forward and upward. Listen to the unison strings keeping time and going higher in pitch in the background behind the trombone and horn melody:
Some of my favorite parts of hiking, especially in the mountains, is when I’ve hiked long enough to get above some trees and see my first scenic view. It is both majestic and breath-taking. On our hike through this music, I imagine that the sun is coming up on the horizon just as we reach the clearing:
Hindemith takes us on several bunny trails until we reach the top of the mountain. The powerful brass at the end of this movement reflect the power I feel in my body having conquered the long hike and made it to the top. There is an even greater majesty and feeling of satisfaction as we out and down on the landscape, perhaps seeing the trail we’ve just hiked hundreds of feet below. It is such a satisfying moment after the degree of uncertainty in parts of the music where it didn’t seem like we would make it. In short, it’s literally a mountaintop experience!
I love Hindemith’s use of power chords in this clip. While most chord progressions move in intervals of a second, fourth, or fifth, these power chords are a third apart. This kind of chord progression adds intrigue because it is not the typical way Western Classical music functions. You would never hear Beethoven or Mozart use chords of this kind because their resolution is a surprise. Beethoven, for example, does the opposite: he spends the length of his pieces building tension by taking you to a home he describes, but one at which you don’t arrive until you’ve anticipated it for several minutes. The ending here feels like a surprise, harmonically. To me, that is what makes it so interesting. I will be sure to give more examples of the surprises composers write into their music. Hindemith wasn’t the only one.
I am getting closer to writing my first post about one of my favorite works of orchestral music: Barber’s Symphony No. 1.
Before I do, I have a quick influence I’d like to mention: the PBS miniseries Keeping Score. Again featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, Keeping Score is a show on PBS with 55-minute episodes that are spent analyzing works of classical music. There are 8 episodes so far that span 3 seasons, and the first six episodes are available from iTunes. You can buy all six for $8.99 or each episode for $1.99. Here is a list of the works discussed:
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Ives: Holidays Symphony
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
In these episodes, MTT shows the viewer the historical significance of each work and they it was so revolutionary. He actually visits many of the settings in which the work was written, performed, and places it influenced. The scenes often cut back to the San Francisco Symphony performing each piece to illustrate the point MTT made. I enjoy the fact that in many of the episodes we get the performer’s take on the music. For example, orchestra members speak to what it meant to live in soviet Russia during the time Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 or what it was like to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
If you only watch one episode, for $1.99 I recommend the Rite of Spring episode. This is another work similar to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that displays the full range of what a symphony orchestra is capable of. If you have heard this piece before and thought it strange and inaccessible, watch this episode and you will be sure to change your mind.