Sadness: Whitacre

WhitacreEric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most popular composers, conductors, and clinicians today. He is very charismatic, tech-savvy, and has just received his first Grammy award. Be sure to check out his website where there are many amazing projects, such as his virtual choirs which are explained in his Ted Talk. While principally a composer of choral works, my favorite piece of his was written for band, or wind symphony as those in the profession call it.

October by Eric Whitacre is today’s piece of Classical music that expresses sadness. Here is what the composer has to say about the piece:

October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.

I share Whitacre’s sentiments, but I would add that to me, the piece expresses a sad, emptiness. Listen to the couple of clarinets accompanying the oboe soloist.

It seems as though the oboe is calling out for comfort, a kind word, love or acceptance. As I hear this part, I do imagine a pastoral scene where I am in the middle of a field of wheat, completely alone without a soul in sight. The scene has a chilling beauty to it, as though it would make me happy if only I had someone to share it with.

Wheat-Field-003

Soloists often express human emotion the most tangibly. There are two oboe solos in this piece and a rare euphonium solo as well. If you are not familiar, a euphonium is a low brass instrument with roughly the same range as a trombone. However, it has valves like a tuba and has a bell that faces up instead of forward. It tends to have a sweeter, more muted sound than the trombone. The University of North Texas, where I received my masters degree, has the only full-time euphonium professor, Brian Bowman. I gained a new appreciation for the instrument during my time there, being surrounded by so many great euphonium players.

I confess that it is difficult to listen to this piece without shedding tears. Even when I heard it for the first time in high school, I cried. And high school-age boys are not supposed to cry. I suppose I couldn’t help it, as there are some sections that express the heaving kind of crying, weeping, or sobbing. It seems that waves of emotion come over the listener during some sections, such as this one:

While the piece does end on a strong major chord, it is only after a long emotional journey. The feeling the listener is left with by Whitacre is one of a greater appreciation and greater affection for that which is important in life. This is perhaps the chief utility of negative emotions like sadness and sorrow: to give us a better perspective on the good. Thanks, Eric.

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Fear of Evil: Nelson

Have you ever seen a scary movie where you didn’t get to see the antagonist until the very end? I mean where there is an ominous, slow-moving threat of evil, signs of evil, and great suspense, but the real evil simply doesn’t show itself. I would say that this kind of evil – an unknown evil – is the kind most feared.

 

That kind of evil is portrayed in Ron Nelson’s (b. 1929) Passacaglia. Though this is a “Classical” music blog, I have included any instrumental and vocal music that popular culture would fit into that genre, however diverse. For example, this piece was written for band in 1993, the year of Nelson’s retirement. It is performed in this recording by the Dallas Wind Symphony, one of the few professional wind ensembles in the country. Here is an excerpt from Ron Nelson’s program notes:

Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) is a set of continuous variations in moderately slow triple meter built on an eight-measure melody (basso ostinato) which is stated, in various registers, twenty-five times. It is a seamless series of tableux which move from darkness to light.

Ok, this is why popular culture doesn’t get Classical music. Because the people in the profession are speaking music-ese. Let me translate:

Passacaglia is a melody played by low instruments at a moderately slow speed, over and over again, 25 times in all. As the melody is repeated, it sounds different each time as it is passed from instrument to instrument. It characterizes a series of scenes that move from darkness to light.

To me, it is the evil that moves from darkness to light. It starts more calm, tranquil, like it is under water, peaks its head out for a moment, and then submerges again. Can you hear the “basso ostinato” in the low instruments in this clip followed by variations played by the upper woodwind instruments?

As light takes over in the next clip, our enemy here gets more overt and intense – bent upon our destruction. The brass section in the band is playing full-blast power chords, the drums are going, the woodwinds are playing fast sixteenth notes, and the trumpets are double-tonguing. When brass players double tongue, it is because the notes are too fast to play the way they normally do, so they have to use a special, difficult technique called double tonguing. Flutes can do this also.

Can you think of any books or movies for which Passacaglia would make a fitting soundtrack?