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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March of the (Nasty) Women

January 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are filling the streets of major US cities for the Women’s March on Washington, to protest the Great Farce which began yesterday. It was only a century ago that women in the US were fighting for the right to vote; just like today, protest songs were written and sung.

Ethel Smyth was a Nasty Woman. She was a lesbian who not only wanted to be a composer, but also to vote. Born in England in 1858, her envisioned life was not one to be easily won. She had to keep her homosexuality hidden, and her career in music was suppressed by sexism; her father strongly discouraged her from pursuing music, and Smyth had to forge her own way. She became very involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and ultimately did see English women win the right to vote when she turned 70.

Progress is slow, but it can happen, thanks to Nasty Women like Smyth. Here is her “March of the Women“, written in 1910.

While this piece is fitting for this post, I’d recommend digging a little deeper and listening to some of Smyth’s other compositions, which better show her compositional personality. You can start here.

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Rest for the Weary

December 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

If there was a “composer with the most ridiculously long name contest,” the winner would probably be César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck; second place would go to Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, with third perhaps going to Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.

Parry was among a handful of late Victorian musicians (like Elgar, Stanford, and later, Vaughan-Williams) who crafted a clearly identifiable “English” sound in a time when nationalism was the norm. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that he was among those who ushered in England’s second musical golden age (which, perhaps, peaked with Britten?). Parry, like a good, twee, English gentleman, wrote a set of songs at the end of his life as a farewell to his friends and an epitaph for his life. They are all beautiful, and, as they are appropriate for use in church, they continue to be performed regularly. His setting of Thomas Campion‘s poem, “Never Weather-Beaten Sail” is fitting for the end of one’s life, but also particularly appropriate for the season of Advent.

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