Longing: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is a reposting from my series on emotion in Classical music from September 2012.

RachmaninovSergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I get a sense of longing so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after seven years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.

Longing: Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I feel a longing for love so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after six years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.

Longing for encouragement: Elgar

Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is a theme with a set of variations written about various people Elgar knew throughout his life. These people ranged from his wife, (variation 1) to his friend’s dog (variation 11) to a great friend and mentor (variation 9). It is variation number nine, entitled “Nimrod,” that expresses a great sense of longing. You may have heard this piece during the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

The names of these variations are meant to mask the person’s real identity, but in this case we know the real name is Augustus Jaeger, an older friend, critic, and a source of great encouragement for Elgar. It is said that when Elgar had many setbacks in his career, or felt depressed and thought about giving up composing, Jaeger was always there to encourage him to take heart and continue writing. Elgar reportedly stated that this movement is not so much of a portrait of Jaeger, but “a story of something that happened.”

I admire Elgar for writing a piece about people who have inspired and encouraged him. It sounds like a good exercise to sit down and write about those who have encouraged me over the years. This variation about the encouragement Edward Elgar received is in itself an encouragement to me. It helps me remember that I would not be the person I am today without the encouragement of my parents, my wife, my friends, clarinet teachers, and various other mentors in my life.

And that’s why I want to tell you about my friend, Jesus Christ.

Just kidding! You thought I was about to get preachy. But seriously, this work does remind me of Jesus. I was at a conference in college when I first heard Variation IX. It was the soundtrack to some powerful scenes from blockbuster movies. A word would appear on the screen, like “courage” and then it would show a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or it would say “true love” and would show the final scene from Sense and Sensibility. Finally, it said “sacrifice” and showed a scene from The Jesus Film with Jesus dying on the cross. I don’t remember the last slides, but the message was about the story of creation and how we have a God that loves us through it all. He has been a source of encouragement since I was very little and heard my first bits of Classical music. When I think about the way Jesus lived his life, the way he encourages me in dark places, and how he is so present in this moment the way this music is, I long for his goodness.

Instead of going into the musical reasons why this piece is so powerful, I have some homework: listen this piece in its entirety, with no distractions, and meditate on someone who has inspired you. Did anyone specific come to mind? Be encouraged and thankful for him or her, and let the longing you feel motivate you to continue doing all of the good things you do.

Barber: Symphony No. 1

Samuel Barber’s music is some of the most emotionally intense, rhythmic, beautiful, satisfying, heart-breaking, disturbing, and powerful music I’ve ever heard. You may have heard his most famous piece, Adagio for Strings. While the entire symphony is worth listening to, I will spend the most time on movement three, entitled “Andante tranquillo.”

Before I begin, I have a two disclaimers. First, in an earlier post, I mentioned that in order to appreciate Classical music, one must use one’s imagination. I am presenting one version of what I imagine the music evokes. I would love to get your impressions, too. In general, I imagine a main character, a subject, whose experiences are being described by the music. If it is not a character, then it is an emotional journey, a picture, or simply a mood or atmosphere. Second, I want to apologize for starting my entries about Classical music with a piece some listeners may find too intense and depressing. This work speaks to me too deeply to be overlooked.

Symphony No. 1 starts with very broad statements, as though we are seeing the landscape Barber is painting from a high altitude. It doesn’t take long for us to descend from this height to reveal certain inconsistencies in the scene, as though something isn’t right. The uneasiness gives way to paranoia as more and more questions are raised. By the end of the movement, all fears are confirmed in a violent way.

Movement two transitions without missing a beat into comic whimsicality. It is a blatant denial of what has just happened. I can imagine a six-year-old girl with a wide grin closing her eyes, plugging her ears, and singing “la la la la la la – I’m not listening!” This movement is about a flurry of activity: running, entertainment, diversion, and even thrill-seeking. And there are moments that are incredibly diverting, thrilling, and possibly dangerous. The climax of this movement is some kind of injury which puts an end to the fun (warning: this clip is loud!)

The subject must now face the feelings he has been avoiding.

Movement three, “Andante tranquillo,” begins with a beautiful, warm atmosphere with a lush major chord in the strings. The melody in the oboe is beautiful but is only half in the key. 

It consists of many tri-tones and half-step intervals which create a haunting tension. An interval is the distance between two pitches. If the distance is too close, like that of a half-step interval, the music sounds tense. The same exists with a tri-tone, where the interval is half way between octaves. There is a brief interlude of reflection and uncertainty followed by another statement of the melody, this time in the strings. The melody is played twice as fast – the musical term for that is diminution. The drama increases as the line spirals higher and higher and with greater passion. 

As the music reaches peak intensity, the orchestra personifies a kind of wailing. But there is power in the pain, like a cleansing fire. It is like human suffering coming in contact with a glorious, powerful God. Trombones dominate the texture in this section. In Western music history, especially in opera, trombones were used to depict the divine. The trombone has a transcendent power that few other instruments can match. 

The final movement takes one last time to determine if it is possible to escape the disturbing truth that was revealed in the first movement, having run from it in movement two and mourning it in movement three. In the end, there is a finality of resignation, perhaps death. If it is death, than it is a dramatic, Shakespearean death! It could be the death of a person, idea, hope, or experience. This clip is not actually the end of the piece – it actually gets more exciting from here. 

Again, I would love to get your impressions on this music. Please reply in the comment section and feel free to share this post with anyone who may be interested by using the share buttons below. Thank you for reading.

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

Introduction

How does the saying go? “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

What about those who can’t teach? I guess they write.

Why I am starting this blog. I love music. I cant stop thinking about music throughout the day. Especially music for large ensembles: orchestras, bands, and choirs. The genres include baroque, classical, romantic, modern, minimalist, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, funk, contemporary jazz, and some rock music. If it is artful.

In another post I’d like to share what criteria I look for in music in order to consider it good music. I recognize, of course, that people have different preferences in music and that all are valid. There is a whole research field out there on musical preference and why people like music. I want to look more into that.

Another reason. I have two music degrees and I work for Office Depot. No one I know thinks this is right, including myself. Or, if they think it is right, they think it is only for now, and that God is working in me and developing my identity in Him. My testimony includes how, at least at an unconscious level, I staked my worth in my achievement in music. I decided to pursue music because if I couldn’t get my peers in school to like me, at least they would respect me and my talent. When I learned that I would neither perform nor teach, I was devastated. I will be sure to write about my musical experiences, including how they came to a screeching halt, in a future post.

While music is not the thing that determines my worth, it is still a large part of me. I’ve tried to suppress it over the last three years because I cared too much about it. But I can’t. Time for some cliches: I can’t keep it inside! I can’t hide it in a bushel basket! This little light of mine, I’ve gotta let it shine! Carpe Diem! Seize the day! You only have one life to live, so live it to the fullest! There is no time like the present!

In other words, I feel compelled to share my love of music. I want to express what it means to me personally as well as the emotional, psychological, spiritual, educational, and social value it possesses. I want to advocate for music, especially the symphony orchestra and the programs that make them possible. I want to break down the barriers that people have to experiencing music the way I and many others have. As an educator, my philosophy is to develop in students a life-long participation and appreciation of music. While I am not confident school programs do this with the distractions of contests, chair placements, and football games, I do want to support these programs. I want to see schools take a holistic approach, making music a relevant part of all areas of education, not just performing arts. English literature, history, religion, philosophy, science, and even math are not separate subjects from music. Perhaps one day my writing could support my philosophy of education in school programs.

For now, the goal is to write about music and see if I can sustain it over time. I need to find out if this is a form of musical expression that suits me. I need to see if I can find my writer’s voice and develop my own style. I need to know if what I have to contribute is worthwhile. Actually, I’m not sure if I care about that right now. I want to write about it even if no one cares.

My audience may include my wife, my mother, father, sister, brothers-in-law, and closest friends. If none of you read this, that’s ok. I’m happy to hear your feedback, but this will be an experimental space. I may ramble on and on. I may go off on bunny trails, my thoughts may be incoherent, and things may be poorly organized. I am a beginner, after all.

Subjects will include what I have discussed above, but mainly I want to write about my favorite pieces of music. Most of these will be music written for orchestra, choir, and band. Most of them will be in the romantic era of Western Music, though I have some modern works and tunes by jazz and rock artists I’d like to discuss as well.

In truth, if I can prove that I can sustain a lifestyle of writing, I’d like to be a music critic. Perhaps a musicologist. While I haven’t researched exactly what those things are, I think a music critic is someone who writes critically about music. Ok, probably more explanation is needed than that. In my understanding, music critics write reviews about concerts, ensembles, new works. They also write biographies or blog about the latest trends in music. They do research, they judge contests, and they probably do their fair share of teaching. They are historians, but also futurists. They dream of how music can play a role in our changing society and give educators ideas on the function of music.

Maybe Musicologist is the correct term, though I don’t like the negative connotation associated with that title. Musicologists seem like dry, boring, bookworms who are only interested in their own research and high-minded academics. They seem to find everything that is wrong with music and reduce it into something less than valuable. In short, I don’t enjoy the way they express themselves. Perhaps they feel a burden to prove themselves to “those who know” about music. I feel the opposite burden: I must prove myself to “those who don’t know.” Only if I want to get paid, anyway!

I have an idea of how I can get started on this exploration of musical writing, but it will have to wait until the next post.

Thanks for reading.