Happy Halloween!

October 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Halloween is a funny holiday. It has its light, fun side, with kids, costumes, candy, parties. It also has a darker side, making us contemplate death as the summer world “dies” into winter. Somewhere in between, we delight in facing our darkest fears from a safe distance – like watching a horror movie from the safety of our living rooms.

The Dance of Death is an old allegory for the harsh reality of life – no matter who you are in life, how important or unimportant, we all end up dead in the end. Perhaps this holiday helps us address this reality with a sense of humor. Camille Saint-Saëns‘ famous symphonic poem, Danse Macabre, had its beginnings as an art song that he wrote, in which death plays his violin, calling souls to their death. Shortly after he wrote it, Saint-Saëns expanded, adapted, and crafted into this Halloween favorite. It follows a predictable, but fun hallows eve legend – death awakens at midnight, dances his wild dance, but returns to the grave with the morning sun.


Row, row, row your boat

October 30, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Sergei Rachmaninoff was inspired to write a symphonic poemThe Isle of the Dead” after he saw this painting by the same name:


The unusual meter of 5 beats per measure makes the motion of the piece feel like the gentle rocking of a boat as it carries a soul across the river styx. The quotation of the Dies Irae chant was clichéd by the time Rachmaninoff wrote this piece, having been worn out by both Berlioz and Lizst. Nonetheless, this marvelous work deserves more credit than it is given, and is far more interesting than any of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies – and nowhere near as long!


Composers vs. Disney

October 29, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I can’t tell you how many people of my generation say they were first introduced to Art (“classical”) Music through cartoons. There are more than a dozen music-themed Looney Tunes shorts, not to mention the marvelous pairing of music and emotion found in Ren & Stimpy. These of course are light cartoons, based on slap-stick comedy (or, in the case of Ren & Stimpy, truly absurd comedy). Disney, on the other hand, tended to take things a little more seriously.

In the years surrounding World War II, Disney was working hard to lift the American spirit, producing music-themed feel-good movies such as Make Mine Music (containing Peter & the Wolf and an Operatic Whale) and of course, Fantasia. Unlike cartoon comedy shorts which presented anarchic musical satire, Disney presented a fairly authentic version of Art Music performances. Still, the story and music of Disney’s Peter & the Wolf is very different from Prokofiev‘s, but not insultingly so. A composer who came out worse for wear after dealing with Disney was without a doubt Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was changed from a primitive pagan ritual into a dancing dinosaur ballet. Stravinsky said he was offered little choice whether or not to allow his piece to be used; Disney approached him and said he was going to use the Rite one way or the other – Stravinsky was offered only the choice to be paid or not.

Paul Dukas, on the other hand, died five years before Fantasia was released, and therefore didn’t have to negotiate with Disney when they decided to set his tone poem, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to cartoons. And, amazingly, Disney adapted neither the original story nor Dukas’ score in the film – it’s about as authentic as you can get, once you get over Mickey Mouse as a main character. Now, the image of magician Mickey Mouse can be found everywhere, and Dukas’ music is permanently associated with this performance