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.


Send in the Trolls

October 20, 2016 at 10:30 am

Of Europe’s 750 million people, Norway claims only 5. Norway is the sticks, the boondocks, the land of country bumpkins.

Joking aside, it is relatively small and remote. It was even more so a century ago, before cars and the internet made the earth a lot smaller. So when Norwegian hero Edvard Grieg wrote magnificent music, he put this small country on the maps and in the minds of the rest of the continent. His compositions are flavored with Norwegian legends and mythology – this is the land of giants, trolls, gnomes, swords, spears, and Vikings. One of my favorite Halloweentide pieces is his March of the Trolls, which comes from a series of short character pieces he wrote for piano.

This piece is in trio form – ABA. There’s an opening section in which you can hear the excited little trolls running around, followed by a middle section where the trolls sit around and relax a spell; the piece ends with an exact repeat of the first section.



Bastille Day Jams: Music to Lose your Head over

July 14, 2016 at 10:00 am

Alternate title: GuilloTUNEs

France’s Fourth of July takes place on the fourteenth of July – Bastille Day (or, as the French prefer to call it, the much nicer-sounding La Fête Nationale), the beginning of the French Revolution. Now technically, the real beheading party didn’t begin until a few years later, Still, the guillotine has become the iconic icon of French liberty and justice.

Which is why I bring you this – iconic French composer Hector Berlioz‘s “March to the Scaffold”, the fourth movement of his Symphonie Fanstastique. Written in 1830, after two generations of political turmoil, it is a testament to the hardiness of humanity and our need for beauty in an ugly world. This Symphony is historically important because it fueled the romantic obsession of programmatic music; it also introduced an idea Berlioz called the idée fixe a musical motif or melody which is attached to a specific thought, person, or idea. Out of the context of the whole symphony, the idée fixe won’t have much meaning when you listen to this single movement. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it.

Programmatic music is the idea that music can convey a non-musical story or idea. Sometimes programmatic music composers can be cryptic; other times they are very specific. Berlioz is the latter! He provided this awesome, drug-inspired summary of this head-rolling movement:

Convinced that his love is unrequited, the protagonist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes somber and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.