Beer & Brides

November 4, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Oh, to be Czech. They are by far the world leaders in beer consumption. On average, a Czech consumes 142 liters of beer every year – their Austrian and German neighbors hold the #3 and #4 positions, but with a figure 40 liters lower. And, they have some of the most gorgeous scenery in Europe.

Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s most famous opera is The Bartered Bride – but no, it’s not about a mail-order wife. It’s actually just a classic story of a couple whose true love prevails over her parents, who want to trade her for money and social status (WIN parenting right there!) But more importantly, there is a rousing beer-drinking chorus, and a circus scene in which the performers dance some (what else) traditional Czech dances.

Warning: listening to this might make you drink beer and dance a polka.

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Childrearing 101

November 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm

What’s the best way to get your kids to be obedient? Lie to them, of course! Tell them frightening tales of monsters who will get them if they don’t do what they are told. So, when you read fairy tales or nursery rhymes to your children, be sure you are reading the REAL ones – not the updated happy-lovey versions. You know, the one where Rumpelstiltskin rips himself in half, or Hansel & Gretel cook the witch, or the evil scissor-guy cuts off the thumbs of the thumb-sucker.

Shortly after the Brothers Grimm published their collected stories (in German), a guy named Erben published similar set of fairy-tale poems in Czech. Antonín Dvořák, being a nationalistic composer of the Czech people, composed music after the poetry. “The Noonday Witch” is a tone poem in which the story is clearly laid out by the music:

A mother scolds her baby for making so much noise; she complains about what a nuisance he is. She threatens to call the “noon witch” to come and take him away if he doesn’t do as she asks. Whether or not the witch comes is up to interpretation – but either way, the mother becomes frightened that the witch has arrived and is about to steal her child. She clutches the child close to her breast, and faints. When the woman’s husband arrives home, he finds his wife passed out on the floor, and his child dead in her arms – suffocated by the mother’s hold.

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“My Homeland” OR “Twinkle, Twinkle in Minor”

June 18, 2016 at 10:00 am

There are certain melodic ideas that come up over and over again throughout the history of music.  My choir members know I am famous for finding the first four notes of “How Dry I Am” in practically every piece ever written. There’s a reason for this – the shape of this phrase is beauty itself. A leap of a fourth, going from a weak beat to a stronger beat, gives the impression of suddenly turning one’s head to pay attention. Then, a simple three-note rising scale continues to lift the head – making us feel taller, alert, and engaged with the world. A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But I believe there is something deep here that evokes a universal (or at least nearly universal) response in every human.

Another universally loved musical gesture is the melodic shape found in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Here, the melody rises a fifth (creating tension), then gentle falls back down to the starting note by gradually descending. The effect? We start from a place of bored contentment. Then, we ascend to a high note – there is tension and excitement in our lives! What will happen? Well, one note at a time, we relax until we have returned to our starting place. However – we are no longer bored, because we have just had a thrilling journey! A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But maybe this overly-simple example can give us an idea of what makes great pieces of music, well, great.

Here is a movement from “My Homeland” by Bedřich Smetana, a gorgeous musical painting of a Czech river, Vltava. You can hear the little rushing brooks, eventually flowing into a wide expanse of water. The melody, though, is the same as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, only beginning in a minor key, and triumphantly ending in major.

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