Meditation from “Thais” is a piece for violin and orchestra played in between scenes in the tragic opera, Thais by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The story is about a monk who travels to Egypt in order to convert a woman, Thais, but falls in love with her in the process. After she converts and comes under the care of the church, the monk renounces his religion in favor of pursuing Thais romantically only to find her on her death bed from illness. I love a good tragedy, don’t you?
This piece is another great example of emotion in Classical music. The sound of the violin could not be sweeter or more passionate. The vibrato (fast wavering of pitch) in the violin is meant to sound like the natural human singing voice, making the violin one of the most personal and human-sounding instruments. I love the way this piece depicts both a romantic love and a heavenly, divine love. The melody in the second clip begins the same way as the first clip, but it then takes a turn toward a higher, more brilliant sentiment than before. As the strings crescendo (get louder) in the background and the key changes, it seems that we’ve arrived somewhere we didn’t expect: a pleasant surprise.
It is clear that romantic love, longing, and passion is one of the emotions that Classical music expresses best. For me, this music both creates longing and fulfills it at the same time. There are hundreds of selections I could have included in this series and I will be writing about many of them in the future. Stay tuned.
The last movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto portrays nervous anxiety, even panic. The title of the movement, “presto in moto perpetuo” translates “very fast perpetual motion.” It’s like riding a wild roller coaster with no hope of getting off. The violinist literally plays fast sixteenth notes (4 notes per beat, 170 beats per minute (BPM), that’s like 10 notes per second) the whole movement. Four minutes straight. In order to achieve this, the performer must practice the sections over and over again at a slow tempo and work his way up to 170 BPM. This can take dozens, even hundreds of hours to perfect the way the violinist in this clip has.
The fast-moving action in this piece reminds me of a great chase scene out of a movie. Actually, the music sounds similar to the soundtrack from one of the recent Harry Potter movies. The feel is chaotic, frantic, dissonant, high, fast and loud. You can even hear the horns in this clip sounding the hunt, just as they did for centuries in Western Europe. This is the last 30 seconds at the climax:
How does Barber illicit such a visceral reaction? The fast, perpetually moving notes is one effect, but so is the near atonality of the violin part. Atonality is just as it sounds: an absence of tonality. This means the violin isn’t really sticking to the 8-note scale of a key. Instead, it is playing any one of a 12-note scale at any time. This confuses our ears because we don’t know where the music is headed. Music is the most dissonant when it is atonal. The notes are not random by any means, and if the music were slower, we could probably discern a recognizable, though dissonant melody. But in this case, you won’t be humming this piece later today. It is the feel of chaos and frantic anxiety that sticks with you. But hopefully the excitement of the chase does, too!