Music for the Apocalypse

February 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Thanks to current events and to a certain person who has recently come to power, the Doomsday Clock has been set forward thirty seconds. What will you do when the end comes? And more importantly, what tracks do you have on your phone for the occasion?

The idea of the world ending is certainly not new; there are loads of artwork devoted to the idea, from ancient through modern times. We’ve all thought about “what if” at some point in our lives. I hadn’t really connected the end of the world and music until very recently – the inspiration for this post came to me in the middle of a video game: Fallout 4. To oversimplify, it’s a game where you shoot baddies in post-apocalyptic setting.

What happened was this: I had turned on a radio in the game to the “classical music station”, when I was attacked by a horde of zombies. As I exterminated this crowd of undead enemies, I laughed because the radio was playing the dulcet tones of Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’Amour“. The juxtaposition of murdering horrific humanoid mutations and sweet, lovely music was perfect irony, and completely opposite of the typical battle music of video games.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of irony. The most glorious moment in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V comes when Henry (who by this point is barking mad) orders all his soldiers to sing a Te Deum and a Non Nobis in praise of God, who helped them slaughter the French in a bloody battle. The magnificent music plays during a single, four minute long shot of the battlefield, covered with mangled bodies and limbs: Not unto us, Lord, but to thy name be glory.

But let’s be realistic, we can accept the beautiful music coupled with bloody scenes because we’re removed from the situation. To have to face these horrors in real life is very unsettling. A more appropriate response would be the music in the 2011 film, Melancholia. To sum it up: people live screwed up lives, but it doesn’t matter in the end because a giant planet crashes into earth and destroys everything. This sort of despair is perfect for accompaniment by Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (tragically, edited to fit the footage.)

Why so serious? If the world is going to end in flames, you may as well have fun while doing it, like in Dr. Strangelove! Don’t just drop that atomic bomb, ride it like a cowboy!

Did you know there’s an opera about the atomic bomb? Check it out!

So, nuclear war might end the world. If it did, would humanity descend into tribal warfare, fighting over food, water, and fuel? Brian May‘s killer soundtrack to Mad Max 2 will help you prepare for that.

But it turns out nuclear war is only one of many possible doomsday scenarios that threaten us. Climate change could turn our planet into a Waterworld.

Did you know there is a symphony about climate change? Check it out!

So, what are we to do? Well, on one hand, we could go into a panicked frenzy of despair:

or, we can stand up and do something about it:


Two Organs are Better than One

November 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

How do you fill a massive cathedral with sound? A really loud organ. But, if the organ is too loud, how do you accompany the choir? Easy – build another organ.

Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for large churches to have more than one organ. Even so, there’s not exactly a wealth of music written for two organs. First of all, these organs tend to be placed far apart (there’d be no point in putting two organs next to each other); this means that they two organists would struggle to stay together, musically. Second, these organs tend to be designed with very different things in mind (there’d be no point in building two identical organs in the same building); one will often be the “main” organ for solo repertoire, while the other will be a “choir” organ for accompanying. Or, one will be designed for Baroque repertoire and the other for Romantic, and so the two instruments would sound like oil and water.

There is, however, a unique piece for two organs and choir which makes a strong argument for this instrumentation – the Messe Solemnelle of Louis Vierne, longtime organist of Notre Dame. The choir sings with the softer organ in the chancel, and the loud organ gets the play the fun parts, a football field away, in the west gallery.

French organs are known for their fiery, dark, thunderous sound (they are also known for never, ever being in tune). I often wonder what it was like for a 19th century French farmer to come to the Paris and hear the organ at one of the cathedrals. I imagine they may have needed new underpants after the experience.

Things I love about this video: 1) this is a REAL MASS, not a concert performance; 2) The French mispronunciation of Latin; 3) you can hear the two organs get out of sync with each other if you listen carefully; 4) the last chord is held so long that you can see the singers taking extra breaths to get through it.


Function and Art in Religious Music

October 6, 2016 at 10:30 am

What makes something art? Can something designed purely for function (say, a urinal) be art? Does something have to be essentially useless for it to be art?

I’m not going down that road – come to your own conclusion.

It is an interesting thing to ponder, though. There is plenty of gorgeous music written for functional use. Take William Byrd‘s Mass for Five Voices – this setting could be sung on any Sunday as a regular Christian Mass, but is so exquisite that you can just as easily find it in a secular concert hall. Meanwhile, the infamous Missa “My Little Pony” would be booed off any concert stage, yet sadly remains sung in churches. And any church music director who demands on singing Bach’s Mass in B minor will surely be fired once the priest realizes that the first of three Kyries takes over 10 minutes – but concert-lovers will drive for hours to hear a B-minor mass in a hall.

Jewish sacred music seems to be free from the function/art woes that have become a norm for Christian texts. Perhaps this is because musical instruments were not used in synagogues until relatively recently; unaccompanied choral music took a backseat to instrumental music from the baroque to the late romantic. I have had difficulty finding functional sacred Jewish music that rings as both function and art. Perhaps anti-Semitic trends have suppressed Jewish sacred music from becoming mainstream concert music in the way Mozart’s Masses have. Or, perhaps there is just less of this music than I expect. If you know of any Jewish sacred music that is both (liturgically) functional and high art, please let me know!

The only Jewish Service I’ve heard performed in a concert setting is by Ernst Bloch. If you knew nothing of Judaism at all, you would still enjoy this work as a romantic choral symphony – the work’s flavor is not unlike the Brahms Requiem. However, this service could be sung at your local synagogue, while the Brahms (in its entirety) is exclusively performed as a concert piece.

This is the final part of the service, the Aaronic blessing. You’ll hear the cantor singing the blessing and the choir responding, “Amen”.

May the Lord bless you and guard you;
May the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift up His face unto you and give you peace.

The full service can be found here.