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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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:

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Mozart, eat your heart out

October 26, 2016 at 3:00 pm

I’m said before that Mozart wrote the Requiem against which all others are judged. I’ve also mentioned how the intense emotions of that piece foreshadow a big change in musical style between the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart’s is a masterpiece, classical in balanced form and romantic in dramatic execution. But what if we dump that balance and go straight for the feels – specifically, the OMG-I’m-afraid-to-die day-of-judgment fire-and-brimstone scared-out-of-my-wits feels?

Enter Giuseppe Verdi, the revolutionary composer who helped Italian Opera stay on the map. His Requiem IS an opera; the emotional drama is as chilling as Othello, heart-wrenching as Traviata, dark as Rigoletto. When we hear about the day of judgment, we are scared. We are very very scared. And when Verdi’s angel sounds the trumpet (at 2:25, “Tuba Mirum”), it makes me want to cower under my desk. Mozart’s Tuba? not so much. Makes me want to do a Mr. Bean dance.

Kudos to the performers here for having A LOT of singers in the choir, so the brass could play at full-volume!

The music is scary up until 4:10, at which point it’s the conductor’s face which is scary.

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