Sometimes, there’s just nothing to say

November 29, 2016 at 11:30 am

A short list of great composers who died in their mid-thirties would include Bizet, Chopin, Gershwin, Mozart, Purcell, Schubert, Weber … and Charles Griffes.

Despite a short life, Griffes purchased his immortality by leaving a fair amount of music behind. His compositions stand out in early 20th-century American Art Music because of his French impressionist flavor (most composers at this time were modeling German styles), and his taste for the exotic (very much related to impressionism.)

His Poem for Flute and Orchestra is just beautiful; perhaps it is an homage to Debussy‘s Afternoon of a Faun. What else is there to say? Nothing.


Halloween preparations

October 23, 2016 at 10:00 am

We all have our own rituals when preparing for a holiday. Some put up the Christmas Tree the day after Thanksgiving, some wait until Christmas Eve. Maybe there are TV specials or movies that you MUST watch every year. Some decorate like mad a month before Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s day. Or maybe you’re really into Americana on the 4th.

Every October, I have a canon of scary short stories that I read. It always begins with Poe, especially the Fall of the House of Usher, includes a handful of things like Sleepy Hollow, and ends with a generous portion of Blackwood and Lovecraft. But for now, let’s stick with Poe – how about The Masque of the Red Death?

André Caplet is mainly remembered for his orchestrations of the piano works of his friend, Claude Debussy, especially Clair de Lune. It’s difficult living in the shadow of such a great master; Caplet left behind a generous catalog of works in many different genres, including this gothic tone poem inspired by Poe’s short story. A classic string quartet instrumentation is greatly augmented by the harp, which makes the small ensemble sound much larger than five players.


He wasn’t on Ecstasy, but he was definitely on drugs

October 9, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Don’t do drugs, kids. But if you do, do it like Scriabin.

Alexander Scriabin wrote plenty of perfectly normal pieces; he was a brilliant pianist who wrote his own set of piano preludes and etudes, similar to the great Chopin and Liszt. But once he turned 25, things began to get weird. He developed his own system of harmony based on the whole tone and octatonic scales. At the time, this was edgy, but not groundbreaking; it makes his music sound similar to French impressionism. What sets Scriabin apart is his synesthesia, the “color organ” he invented, his devotion to Theosophy, his rambling writings, and his wild music inspired by religious visions. His two most famous pieces are the Poem of Fire and the Poem of Ecstasy.

Scriabin himself approved this description of The Poem of Ecstasy, which will describe it far better than I:

The Poem of Ecstasy is the Joy of Liberated Action. The Cosmos, i.e., Spirit, is Eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play of Worlds. The Creative Spirit, i.e., the Universe at Play, is not conscious of the Absoluteness of its creativeness, having subordinated itself to a Finality and made creativity a means toward an end. The stronger the pulse beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity itself. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall arrive.

I’ll say it again, kids: don’t do drugs.