Awe and Wonder: Ravel

Have you ever experienced something that overloaded your senses? Ever witnessed something that seemed to transcend human experience? That gave you a sense of awe or wonder? Classical music does that for me and it is the subject for this segment’s emotion in Classical music.

awe – noun – a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder

wonder – noun – a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable

ravelTake Gaspard De La Nuit by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for example. This impressionist piece for solo piano has three movements. The first movement alone is like an out of body experience. Impressionism is often like that because it doesn’t tend to depict reality, but more raw senses and emotion out of context. It is atmospheric rather than programmatic. Abstract rather than literal.

The first notes don’t sound like a piano playing, they sound like water trickling in the darkness from an unknown source. When the melody enters, it progresses as though unconfined to any particular key. It is hard to tell what this melody wants from us, as there is no tension and resolution like typical melodies and their accompanying harmonies. All we can tell is that the melody is becoming more insistent.

Benjamin Lacombe. Extraite de OndineThe subtitle of the first movement is Ondine, a mythical water fairy, and Gaspard De LaNuit is translated “treasurer of the night,” which in French is a reference to the devil. Again, the titles and references need not be taken literally in Impressionism. The feeling I get is being drawn in, seduced, and swept away on an unintended journey. I believe love can be like that, particularly divine love. There is awe at the vastness, gloriousness, and profundity of the character of God. This next clip depicts what it feels like to consent to this journey, follow the proverbial rabbit down the rabbit hole, and be blown away by the experience.

Part of my job here is to explain how Ravel has this effect on the listener, but I can’t. A simple explanation is that the music gets louder, the texture thickens (more notes, wider range), it builds by going up in pitch and then back down, and the melody uses a whole tone scale which has a mysterious sound because it doesn’t lead anywhere. But that explanation does not make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That’s why this music is so wondrous and awesome.

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Serenity Now: Grieg

One of my inspirations for this series on Emotion in Classical Music was listening to the local Classical radio station’s “Road Rage Remedy.” On weekdays, at 7:20am and 5:20pm, they play a piece of Classical music that creates a serene atmosphere in the car. When listening to this music in the height of rush hour, it is difficult to get upset when someone cuts me off, breezes by on the shoulder, waits to merge until the last second, or drives slowly in the left lane. If I turn up the volume in my car, I can’t even hear the road or engine noise. It is quite pleasant.

Edvard Grieg‘s (1843-1907) Lyric Pieces for Solo Piano are an example of a Road Rage Remedy. The piano can be an incredibly calming instrument. It’s something about the way those hammers hit the strings that draws my ear. Pianos can sound like wind, rushing or bubbling water, a car engine, a full orchestra, a woman’s voice, or even children playing,

The tone in Arietta from Book 1 of the Lyric Pieces reminds me of my son, Bennett. He is eight months old and has a playful, innocent, content character (most of the time). In fact, it is not uncommon for the unique character of a piece of Classical music to remind me of specific people I know, famous people, or figures in history. Assigning a theme song to a specific person is called a leitmotif. It first appeared in Wagner’s operas and has been used in countless contexts, from Peter and the Wolf to Star Wars. I would love to do a series on leitmotif in the future.

I have put together a slide show to go with today’s clip. The serene atmosphere in the Lyric Piece is achieved again with a soft dynamic, a slow tempo, major chords, some rubato (the changes in speed at which the song is played), and the fact that it sounds a lot like the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Try singing the words of it to this clip. The rhythm and tempo are the same, but the melody is different. Of course, this was originally composed by Mozart in 1781 as the theme of Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” a French folksong.

I think next time I’m in sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I’ll put on this music and think about my son, who doesn’t have a care in the world.