Life and Death: Symphonic Dances

0What do journalists and Classical composers have in common? They both love a good conflict. On news programs, especially the 24-hour cable networks, the stories are often about violence, terrorism, or war, and when they don’t report on that, they bring in two people with opposite views to debate current events. On the other hand, composers write about conflict in more abstract ways, depicting battle, or a struggle between two extremes, such as good versus evil, love versus hate, or life versus death.

In the case of the final movement from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the struggle depicted is life versus death. As you can hear from the clip above, the introduction of this movement is very tense, like the flurry of activity of soldiers before battle.

It is common for Romantic era composers to choose a melody or motif to represent a specific character or idea. German composer Richard Wagner was famous for this, and musicologists eventually named this technique leitmotif. In Rachmaninov’s case, there are two leitmotifs in this movement – one for death and one for life. The theme that depicts life was taken from Rachmaninov’s earlier choral work, Vespers, in which it characterized the resurrection of Christ. It would seem that it was modified from its original form to take on a more suspenseful, dance-like character for Symphonic Dances:

The theme Rachmaninov used to portray the idea of death is quoted from a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn called Dies Irae. It means day of wrath.

Dies Irae

The clip below plays it in two versions: the fast version played by the strings and a slower, more pure version played by the brass. The fast version modifies the rhythm and plays it twice as fast. The musical term for that rhythmic modification is known as diminution. Both of these represent death throughout the movement.

There comes a time in every conflict where the outcome must be decided, and such is the case during the climax of this movement. Rachmaninov employs the use of power chords in this section to drive home the level of intensity in the conflict between life and death. I have always loved the way this composer writes a very appealing passage and then takes is a step further. He writes 5 seconds of power chords and then modulates the key up a full step to add excitement. You may have to listen closely to the first half of this clip again to catch it.

Similar to movies where the hero gets beat up at first when fighting mano a mano with the villain, the same seems to be true here as the dies irae theme takes over in the second half of this clip played by French horns. This time the rhythm is played at half the speed of normal. Instead of diminution, where it is played twice as fast, playing at half speed is known as augmentation.

In the end, though, Rachmaninov picks life over death. He wrote on the subject of death in many of his works to stir up the tension and intrigue of conflict, and in so doing, the listener’s interest. Listen to how he modified the resurrection theme to sound more heroic and triumphant:

RachmaninovAre you enjoying the series on Rachmaninov so far? There is so much to listen for, I find myself listening to his music over and over and hearing something new each time. I have at least three more pieces in mind that I’d like to discuss, so stay tuned.

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Dance of Death: Symphonic Dances

Ballroom dancers

Ballroom dancers

Continuing my series on Rachmaninov is the second movement from Symphonic Dances: Andante con moto (moderately slow with motion). This movement is a more obvious symphonic dance, a waltz to be precise. But I think you’ll find it very different from, say, a Johann Strauss II (1825-1899 aka “Waltz King”) waltz from the very first few notes.

A Strauss Waltz is typically in a major key and has a light, happy feeling. Rachmaninov’s waltz is in a minor key that modulates often, giving it an ominous, uneasy feeling. Some Strauss waltzes begin with a trumpet fanfare made up of major chords to announce the start of the dance, so dancers may find a partner. Rachmaninov’s fanfare is more like a broken train horn, a dissonant alarm from the peace and calm with which we ended the previous movement:

After some commentary in the form of a violin solo that settles into the minor key, the orchestra sinks into this beautiful, elegant, yet haunting melody played by English horn.

This melody of Rachmaninov’s is brilliant for two reasons. First, it has what every appealing phrase of music has: an antecedent and a consequent. A question and answer. Listen to the clip again. In the first half of the clip, the pitch is continually going upwards, the same way the inflection in our voice does when asking a question. The last note of the question is the note D, which leads us to the first note of the answer, G. Remember the song Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music? It is a song to teach how to sing the notes of a scale using Solfege. Remember the line, “That will lead us back to Do“? Well in this case, because the piece is in the key of G minor, Do is the note G. So is the note D. What are the last two words Julie Andrews sings? “So Do.” Question, answer. That is why it is so satisfying to listen to music. There are questions and answers; tension and relaxation.

Solfege

“Solfege”

The second reason this melody is so appealing is because it draws us in. Rachmaninov only features the note G (or Do) once in any significant way. Otherwise, the other notes dance around it, avoiding it as long as possible. He knew that our ears are always subconsciously yearning to hear Do. Every good composer delays this satisfaction to keep our interest.

I titled this post “Dance of Death” because the melody and harmony are so haunting. Please read my earlier post, “Fear of Death: Rachmaninov” where I explained the character of this piece in greater detail. This is the clip from that article of the climax of the movement:

What a devilishly delightful bit of writing that is! I love how Rachmaninov takes his original melody and builds upon it, going beyond its original form to add drama and suspense. After the fear of death rears its ugly head, the waltz speeds up into what I imagine to be a chase scene. It gets faster, louder, and seems to have a violent conclusion as the orchestra beats us over the head with the loud, short, unison rhythms that some conductors call “punches.”

Investigator_Medium_Size.30223337_stdThis whole movement could be imagined as one great chase scene, from the prison sirens going off at the beginning, to the slow, sneaky escape in the moonlight, to a dramatic chase by police, ending with the escape and fiendish laughter of the villain. But you don’t have to take my interpretation. Buy Symphonic Dances, listen to the whole piece, and use your imagination. Look for the questions and answers, the suspense, the “Ti-Do‘s,” “So-Do‘s” and the changes of character. If you learn to do this, I promise you’ll never be bored by Classical music again.

Drudgery and dreams: Symphonic Dances

RachmaninovIt is my pleasure to begin my series on Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), one of the better-known composers in Classical music. His music is considered late Romantic period, meaning that it has an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, emotion, and is more free-form than the logical structures and subtlety of the Classical period. Rachmaninov is also known for his beautiful melodies, extraordinary piano compositions and performances (note the big hands in the picture!), and uniquely Russian style.

Most of his compositions were written in czarist Russia before the revolution in 1917, when he fled to the United States after losing all of his property and status as a bourgeois. Rachmaninov did compose five major pieces while in the US however, the last of which was Symphonic Dances (Opus 45). A piece with three movements, Symphonic Dances is much like a symphony for full orchestra, but lacking the slow movement.

There are many exciting themes I’ve discovered in Symphonic Dances: the Drudgery of Everyday Life, the Dream of a Better Life, the Game of Life (not the trademarked one), and The Struggle Between Life and Death. I will cover the first two themes in this post concerning the first dance, entitled “Non-Allegro” (not fast).

Imagine the life of a coal miner. I recently watched October Sky for the first time and I think this first movement from Symphonic Dances would make an excellent part of the soundtrack.

Coal Mining060

Imagine waking up before dawn to the sound of light rain drops against his window, getting dressed, leaving the house half-asleep, and boarding the elevator down, down, down into the mine. Then WHAM! Explosives! (symbolized by the loud, dissonant string chord progression and timpani)

When I hear this main theme, I think of the drudgery of life. How we all have to work even when we do not enjoy our jobs. The driving string ostinato in this clip may symbolize just how brutal working can feel, a sort of savage dance. The repeating minor arpeggios in the clarinet and oboe melody remind me of the repetitive tasks that must be completed.

Perhaps in the drudgery of work there is danger, like in coal mining, where explosives are involved and people are working in less-than-safe conditions. Or perhaps there is worry about payroll cuts and layoffs. This can create suspense, as evident in this clip:

The music here has such a finality, particularly when the orchestra ends these phrases on a minor chord with such certainty. It is amongst these sentiments that one may be inclined to dream. To escape to fantasy. The middle section of Non-Allegro expresses this.

Broad landscapeThe impressions are of floating among clouds where, out of a mist, comes the feeling of longing for a sense of safety and relaxation. Our coal miner is on his break and has “gone to his happy place.” The alto saxophone solo in this clip is rare in orchestral music. Did you think the saxophone could sound so sweet?

While this dream may seem possible for a moment, as expressed by the hopeful-sounding major chords in this next clip, the mood sinks back to drudgery again in the return of the main theme.

In the end of this movement, I imagine our worker going home after a long day, meeting with a friend, and getting some words of wisdom: “Learn to accept your present reality, look for the little things in life that make you happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.” Perhaps our working character goes to sleep in this last clip, again to the sound of rain drops against his window, with a lighter heart and feeling encouraged.

Fear of Death: Rachmaninov

The emotions for this week’s Classical music picks are fear and anxiety. The second movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances expresses both very elegantly.

fear |fi(ə)r| – noun – an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat

anxiety |aNGˈzī-itē| – noun ( pl. anxieties ) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was well-known for his fixation on death. If you were to listen to all of his works, you’d find that he used melodies associated with the subject in a large percentage of them. The main melody that can be found over and over in his compositions is the dies irae theme, meaning “day of wrath.” Wiki has a great article on this that includes an audio clip of dies irae in its original form.

Symphonic Dances is about a fear of death and its accompanying anxiety. Death is both imminent and uncertain to most, regardless of religious belief. Rachmaninov addresses this in the most elegant, stylized way. His music has a gothic feel. It reminds me of gothic spires on medieval churches, gargoyles, and Halloween.

This clip demonstrates a growing anxiety turning into outright fear. The piece up until this point expresses much brooding and anticipation. The meter of this piece is 3 beats in a measure, but it is a quick 3, suggesting a waltz. It’s very grotesque to waltz to death music, wouldn’t you say?

This section also demonstrates fear by using dissonance. Dissonance happens when we hear notes that are not normally in the key, or when the key in which the composer is writing shifts unexpectedly. This throws off our expectations as listeners and makes us feel uneasy. As the music gets louder and faster, the intensity builds and the immediate danger is clear.

Fear of death, gargoyles, or goths (I was in high school) is normal. In fact, I would say that our culture is largely based upon fear. Classical music has a way of dealing with and processing through fear and anxiety. If I’m not feeling fearful, then listening to this music is exciting, like seeing a suspenseful movie. If I am feeling fearful, then it gives a name and a face to the emotion, helping me understand and overcome it. Try it sometime.