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!)


When will King Arthur return to rule?

November 10, 2016 at 10:30 am

The Arthurian Legends tell us that Arthur will one day return to reunite and rule over Britain. Arthur’s reign represents perfect politics, and his Christ-like return would mark the beginning of a new golden age. Even so, King Arthur, quickly come. We need you on this side of the pond as well.

How fitting that Henry Purcell, the greatest English baroque composer during his life (and easily the greatest English composer since the renaissance) had written an opera based on the King Arthur legends. And, interestingly, it was politically poignant when it was composed, as England was struggling with who would be the heir to the throne – their choices were the King’s brother (that’s good) who was Roman Catholic (that’s bad) OR an illegitimate son (that’s bad) who was Protestant (that’s good). Sadly, Arthur didn’t return then to fix the political strife, but fingers crossed that he shows up in the US sometime soon!

This is an older recording (from 1956), and it shows its age in its over-romantic interpretation of the music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s different from the way it sounded in Purcell’s day. For one, the instruments used have evloved significantly over the 200 years; secondly, musical styles and practices have evolved as well. For a “performance practice” version of some of the same music, click here.


A Story Everybody Knows

September 26, 2016 at 10:30 am

On this day in 1957, West Side Story opened on Broadway. It has since become a permanent part of American music culture – everybody knows and loves this show and its singing, snapping, dancing gangs. When Leonard Bernstein wrote the music to this show, he had just been appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic. The fact that the conductor of one of the world’s finest orchestras was also writing for music theater showed the depth and breadth of Bernstein’s abilities.