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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Presidents’ Day: A Lincoln Portrait

February 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Last year I wrote a jollier post for Presidents’ Day, likening the political battlefield to a gladiators’ arena. This year, I’m feeling the need for something a little deeper than a Sousa march, though. Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait should do the trick.

The 1942 work is one of Copland’s Americana compositions, like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, or Rodeo. But unlike those ballets, the Lincoln Portrait is similar to a tone poem, but accompanied by spoken text from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. And not surprisingly, the combination of Copland’s music and Lincoln’s words are powerful (and with James Earl Jones as the narrator, like in this video, how can you go wrong?)

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country. It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

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