What does Wind sound like?

October 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Wind is one of those words that can mean different things according to the context in which it is used. Physically, it is the movement of gasses; metaphorically, it can refer to luck (winds of fate), change in society or culture (winds of change), change of (metaphorical or actual) season, the state of being alive (having breath). Wind takes a role in many, if not all, religions. And of course, let us not forget the wind of the butt.

So, how do composers set the idea of wind to music?

We may as well start with some of the stereotypical musical settings of wind – the fast, chromatic passages that rise and fall in Richard WagnerOverture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the trills and tympani in Gioachino Rossini Storm Scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), and the spooky violin glissandi in this colorful, fun work by Ferde Grofé – Cloudburst from Grand Canyon Suite.

Franz Schubert – Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) from Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how Schubert paints the wind in this song – piano arpeggios and trills practically make you shiver, just like a cold, biting wind. This song is part of the wonderfully depressing song cycle that Schubert wrote as a he approached the end of his short life.

The wind is turning the weathervane on the roof of my sweetheart’s house. Round and round it mocks and teases my sighs and my tears…. For Nature plays with our hearts as the wind plays with the vane.

The wind also plays a part in Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Gustav Mahler – Im diesem Wetter (In this Weather) from Kindentotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Another happy little composition, here the wind is a nasty thing that kills babies. Mahler’s amazing orchestration makes you feel the stinging raindrops and blowing gales.

In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off, I wasn’t able to warn them!

César Franck – Les Éolides (The Breezes). This is a sort of tone-poem about Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in the Odyssey, who gifts the winds to help Odysseus find his way home. The piece doesn’t narrate the story like some other tone-poems, but instead paints a picture of the breeze blowing the sea and gently swaying a ship on its journey. The music is so ridiculously French Romantic in its melodic gesture and harmony; it’s easy to see where Debussy and Ravel got their sound. Finally, we need to note that the composer’s full name is César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck, because it takes a good bit of wind to get that name out.

Speaking of Aeolus, there’s an instrument called the Aeolian Harp which is played by – you guess it – the wind. You can listen to one here.There are two piano works related to this ethereal instrument – though neither can be said to really imitate the Aeolian Harp’s sound, they do capture the mystical, magical quality of its music. First, Frédéric Chopin’s Ab-major Etude was subtitled “Aeolian Harp” by his fellow composer, Robert Schumann, because of its quick, wind-like arpeggios.

Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp. Cowell was known for pushing the boundaries of composition. Ironically, this work is one of his tamest, but it’s still a little different from what you might expect in a classical piano piece. And, unlike Chopin, he himself titled this piece with Aeolus’ name.

Carson Kievman – Hurricane Symphony. You might call this a modern equivalent of the Franck work mentioned earlier. It’s a longer listen, and tells the story of a real storm rather than mythology. Kievman is a living American composer whose current project is an opera about Nikola Tesla. How cool is that?

Johann Sebastian Bach – Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist (Have mercy, God Holy Ghost). This is part of Bach’s third Clavier-Übung, also called the German Organ Mass – much has been written about it, so I won’t discuss it here for the sake of brevity. This piece is a fancy setting of a hymn which pleads for mercy from the Holy Spirit, which, in the bible, first appears to the disciples in a wind. The melody of the hymn (cantus firmus) is found in the bass –  long, slow, deep notes – and as it is an organ piece, these low notes require a lot of wind flowing through organ pipes. As the piece progresses, there are rhythmic motifs that sound like the rushing of wind as well (running 8th notes starting at 2:49). There is also a sequence which repeats itself seven times (normally, it should be no more than four), climaxing at the highest note on the baroque organ (starts at 3:06, climaxes at 3:22). Bach is definitely thinking deep here.

Olivier Messiaen – Le vent de l’Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) from Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass) Not to be outdone by a German, Messiaen writes his own windy setting of the Holy Spirit for that big bag of hot-air, the organ. At the end, a nice fat chord puts the bellows to the test, as wind rushes through the pipes and into the church.

-= So, I promised some fart music as well. =-

Carl Orff – Ego Sum Abbas from Carmina Burana. The fart in this short little aria (if you can call it that) from this monumentally famous choral work is, sadly, nearly always ignored by conductors and performers. A baritone soloist sings a satirical monologue about being a nasty drunken abbot. But then, at 1:26, there’s a single-note tuba solo, which has no musical relation to the rest of the piece. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s a fart. The drunken jerk of an abbot farted. And I believe it should be required that the soloist pretend to break wind at this pinnacle moment of this oratorio.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich. Mozart was a dirty little boy. He wrote a number of canons on butt licking, probably for singing with his mates at the local drinking hole. No, I’m not lying. After his death, his dirty little canons were all published, but with alternative words that were much more acceptable for public performance. The video below, unfortunately, is sung with the alternate “clean” lyrics, but here is is a translation of the original:

In the heat of summer I like to eat roots and spices, also butter and radish; they expel a lovely wind and cool me.

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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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