Clarinet recital videos: Hommage a C. Debussy

An hommage is a piece of music written to pay tribute to something or someone. In this case, the tribute is being paid by Hungarian clarinet professor Béla Kovács to French composer Claude Debussy. Béla Kovács (b. 1937) is Professor of Clarinet at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and performs in orchestras in Budapest, Hungary. Here is what Professor Kovacs had to say about these pieces:

My pedagogical activities inspired me to compose the Hommages. The pieces were Bela-Kovacs intended to be etudes or studies which students may use as supplementary material to the usual dry and mechanical – although indispensable – exercises. They contain various challenges. If performed with impressive dexterity, proper tone production and sufficient knowledge of styles, coupled with a sense of humor and a certain amount of fantasy, they could, hopefully, find success even on the concert stage. I recommend the Hommages to all my former, present, and future students, and also to those, who, recognizing their value, may wish to devote more concentrated attention to them.

Béla Kovács is an excellent replicator of various composers’ styles, such as that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The bulk of Debussy’s works fall under the category of French Impressionism, which was a movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that departed from the more obvious, overt style of Romanticism. Impressionist music is much like impressionist art: it depicts the figurative meaning of a person, object, or scene rather than the literal portrait. The emotions are more subtle and covert. Also, the melodies are more difficult to identify because they weave together an atmosphere rather than a song or dance. Kovács directly quotes at least two of Debussy’s works in this piece for unaccompanied clarinet including his Premiere Rhapsody and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is perhaps Debussy’s most famous work.

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.

Simple contentment: Larsson

Today’s clip depicting contentment comes from Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). The title, Pastoral, is indicative of a lifestyle in the countryside herding animals and living simply. Art, literature, and music have characterized it for centuries. Famous examples of this are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. If you’ve never heard these pieces, I recommend them. Much too charming to pass up.

I have often heard that the people who live the most fulfilling lives live the most simple ones. That is captured in Larsson’s Pastoral. The flute solo in the beginning of this clip has a playful innocence that, when joined with the warmth of the strings, is absolutely delightful. Larsson helps us feel at ease with simple melodies and harmonies, major chords, and a softer dynamic. There is very little dissonance, and when there is, it is to foster an even greater relaxed feeling. It is hard to feel anything but content when listening to this music. Enjoy!

Serene/content: Debussy

I thought you could use a break from all of that fear-mongering I did last week. So this week, I hope to resolve all of that tension. That is all Classical music is, really: tension and relaxation. Conflict and resolution. When music theorists talk about “functional music,” that is what they mean. There are certain notes, chords, and orchestrations whose function is to cause tension and there are certain ones that resolve tension. The best composers delay the resolution as long as possible, drawing your ear in and then delivering great satisfaction when it comes. It’s like the anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning. Ok, time for some definitions:

content |kənˈtent| – adjective – in a state of peaceful happiness

serene |səˈrēn| – adjective – calm, peaceful, and untroubled; tranquil
or as a noun – an expanse of clear sky or calm sea

I love the noun serene. If gives me such a great canvas on which to put my impressions of this music.

Clair de lune is the third movement of a piano suite by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) called Suite bergamasque. Though Debussy was mainly an Impressionist composer, this piece is in the Romantic style. While this piece really needs no introduction, I will provide some context to help enrich your listening experience. If it is distracting, then just play the clips and relax!

Clair de lune is French for “moonlight.” While I recommend listening to the whole suite, it is self-evident why this piece is so popular when you listen to it. The piece was named after a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Here is the English translation:

Moonlight
Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

You may hear this read aloud in the original French as well as English here.

The first clip is the essence of contentment for me. As some would say, it takes me to my “happy place.” I imagine myself lying in a boat in calm waters at night, looking up at the moon and stars, feeling a gentle breeze across my face, hearing the sound of it passing through the trees, ruffling the leaves.

This next section seems to wisp me away to a peaceful, beautiful environment. As I listen, I feel my muscles in my back, shoulders, and neck relax. Here’s another definition for you:

sublime |səˈblīm| – adjective – of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe

And that’s it! I’m not going to put too many demands on you this week by going into to much musical detail. I just want to enjoy the music with you and exchange ideas on its affect.

Emotion in Classical music

“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:

  • fear/anxiety
  • serene/content
  • anger/fury
  • longing/love/passion
  • elation/joviality
  • sadness/sorrow
  • loneliness/isolation
  • flippant/sarcastic

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!