What does Death sound like?

May 3, 2017 at 1:17 pm

We humans certainly are fascinated with Death. Do you fear it? welcome it? try to postpone it? encourage it to come sooner? And what happens as we pass out of this world? Let’s dive into some musical expressions of death.

Richard StraussTod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration)Strauss’ magnificent tone poem tells the story of a sick man, facing death – he fights the illness, but loses, his life flashes before his eyes, he is scared, and then achieves a peaceful calm as his life slips away and, in Strauss’ own words, “the soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.”

Guiseppe Verdi – La Traviata finale: This is your classic tragic ending to an Italian opera (the music at the point of death is strikingly similar to the final death scene in Rigoletto). Like nearly all Italian tragic operas, you can sum up the plot thus: adultery is all fun and games until somebody gets killed.

Gustav MahlerSymphony No. 9 finaleMahler’s last complete symphony ends with mournful elegy to himself. He had been diagnosed with a heart defect, and felt (knew?) he was dying as he wrote it. Though a long, slow-moving listen, the deep peace of the pianissimo strings ending is very rewarding – it’s as if Mahler is taking his final breaths (and indeed, I find it hard to breathe when I listen to it!)

Giacomo PucciniLa bohème finale: Maybe it’s a little clichéd as far as deaths go, but every time I see this opera I get a cold chill when the minor chord signals Mimi’s death (in this video, 2:05). Mimi is finally at peace, but the torment that her friends and lover go through is utterly heart wrenching.

Richard WagnerLiebestod (Love-Death): In a Romeo-and-Juliet-like moment, Isolde dies over the body of her lover, Tristan, and in doing so finds complete fulfilment and repose, and becomes one with the universe, or something like that. The romantics were totally into that sort of awesomeness.

 

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What does Water sound like?

April 25, 2017 at 1:39 pm

What does water sound like?

“Water” is a big word with many meanings. It encompasses everything from a single molecule to vast oceans. We quench our thirst with it, clean ourselves with it (physically and spiritually), cry it when we are overjoyed or sad. If we have too little water, we die of thirst; too much, we drown. Civilization sprung up around sources of water, and was (still is?) the primary method of travel and trade. I could go on and on …

It’s no wonder that composers have put their sweat (water again) into creating music that somehow captures water. Rather than blab on and on, I’ll let the music speak for itself.

This post is a longer listen, so be prepared to sit a while, or feel free to go through in multiple sittings, whatever suits you.

La Mer (The Sea)Claude Debussy: This impressionist work gives you a sense of rolling waves in an dark, infinite ocean through its gentle rhythms, rich orchestral colors, and expansive harmony.

Overture to Das RheingoldRichard Wagner: The first notes of Wagner’s magnum opus transports the listener from a chair in an opera house to the bottom of Germany’s most famous river, the Rhine. Unlike many other opera overtures, there’s not much to it – just 4 minutes of Eb major, slowly unfolding; a musical equivalent to the slow rising of a curtain in a theater.

A Sea SymphonyRalph Vaughan Williams: Longest. Symphony. Ever. And also, RVW’s first symphony, written at the same time as Debussy’s La Mer, and as quintessentially English as La Mer is quintessentially French.

Four Sea Interludes from Peter GrimesBenjamin Britten: For Britten, the sea was always a part of his life, having been born, raised, lived, and died in a seaside town. In his operas, the ocean is practically a character unto itself. The Imperial Royal Navy heard in Vaughan-Williams is no longer present – instead, we get an ominous, expansive agent of life and death.

(Another) Sea SymphonyHoward Hanson: Across the pond, us Yankees have crafted our own Sea Symphony with chorus; but unlike Vaughan-Williams endless composition, this one is much shorter, and musically is closer to Britten.

 Obviously this list is far from complete. Any suggestions? (and no, Handel’s Water Music doesn’t count!)

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Veterans Day

November 11, 2016 at 11:11 am

Happy Veterans Day!

I am humbled when I think about those in the armed forces, willingly putting themselves in danger for the welfare of others. They have more bravery than I could ever have, and I am thankful for their service and sacrifice.

American composer John Adams set Walt Whitman‘s “The Wound Dresser” for voice and orchestra. It is a lengthy and emotional narrative, in the tradition of Barber‘s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (listen to it here). Musically, it’s somewhere between an opera and a song cycle, and the text ranges from fine poetry to graphic description. It’s a longer listen, but well worth it, especially on this day. Whitman wrote his poem shortly after the Civil War, 150 years ago. Only 100 years ago, the Great War ravaged much of the world. And World War II was so horrific that we are still in shock concerning the horrors of the holocaust and atomic bomb. Take a mere 20 minutes, have a listen, and give thanks for our soldiers.

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