Posts Tagged ‘classical music’

Felix’s Fortress Forté

August 4, 2019

While tuned into radio WDAV a day or two ago . . .

listening to Felix Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony,

we suddenly discerned a developing  melodic surprise:

gentle strains of a classic religious tune, A Mighty Fortress is Our God . . .  drifting into the 3rd movement of the music.

Twenty-three minutes into this performance,

Orchestra

those first melodic snippets of Luther’s famous hymn—I heard, venturing in discreetly, during the slow Andante phase of Mendelssohn’s 1832 orchestral composition.  By the end of the piece, however, the understated entrance of that well-known melody had morphed into being the very core of the symphony’s dynamic, forceful conclusion.

This gentle arrival of a familiar melody that incrementally develops into a forcefully conclusive forté—this is a composer’s technique found in several classical music masterpieces. . . most notably Beethoven’s (last) 9th Symphony, and a favorite American piece of mine, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

In the case of Ludwig van Beethoven’s use of  a developing melodic theme that overpowers all other musical elements, Ludwig used his own emphatic original tune to fortify a potent message of popular 18th-century zeitgeistuniversal brotherhood. The words that Beethoven chose to accompany his theme had been composed by Friedrich Schiller, a primary 18th-century poet of the Romantic period in our western history.

In the similar case of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the composer employs a traditional religious melody—the “Shaker” theme, Simple Gifts, as a musical fulcrum for propelling the idea of mere simplicity into a commendable lifestyle.

The emphasis on simplicity is a powerful motivating factor in American history. The Puritans. for instance, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, were fleeing an oppressive European religious straightjacket culture; they wanted to simplify their worship of God and to enable the practice of glorifying our Creator in community life.

Like Felix Mendelssohn, a great composer whose family heritage was Jewish,  20th-century composer Aaron Copland chose to utilize a well-established Christian melody as the basis for  fortifying a powerful musical masterpiece.

In other trends of this earthly life . . . in the realm of, let’s say, political compositions—as compared to musical ones—recently I read a book that represents a similar dynamic of compositional accomplishment. David Horowitz’s timely book, Dark Agenda brings to light a contemporary American Christian culture that is under attack from secularizing—yeah, even aggressively anti-religious—zealots.

Perhaps we simple-minded Christians of this era–as well as those more complex Reformed believers whose reforms originated with Martin Luther five centuries ago–will find fortifying encouragement and strong inspiration in these classically-inclined masterpieces:

~~ Felix Mendelsson’s 5th Symphony

~~ Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring,

     oh, and btw. . . honorable mention . . .

~~ Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

King of Soul

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Beethoven

October 8, 2018

Before he raised the baton to conduct Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Christopher Warren-Green told us Beethoven was a revolutionary.

ConductorCWG

He matter-of-factually referred to the most disruptive orchestral composer ever as a revolutionary. And just before cranking up the Charlotte Symphony, Chris speculated that those infamous first-four-notes, da-da-da-Dahhhh, were probably lifted from a French Revolutionary song of that era.

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times, as Charles Dickens later wrote.

Forsooth, ’twas a very revolutionary time—1776-1820.

And Ludwig van Beethoven was right in the middle of it.

Right in the middle of a time when the 18th-century European order of things was being torn apart by radical new  ideas about the People running the show instead of the old fuddy-duddy royals who had been doing it for hundreds of years.

The young composer from northwestern Germany was indeed a musical revolutionary; he revolutionized music.

He turned the purpose of music upside down. Whereas the old order of things, financed by the royals, was all about making beautiful, harmonic, perfectly constructed sonatas and concertos to celebrate order and perfection—-

Ludwig, unable to ignore the terrible angst of that tumultuous age in which he found himself living, reflected—yeah, he even embraced—that disruptive spirit of the times.

And when they heard it sounded forth in the 5th Symphony, the royals hardly know what to make of it.

Beethoven was like the Elvis of his times, except he had an entire orchestra behind him. Multiply Elvis’ chutzpah by the number of musicians in an orchestra. That was the effect of Beethoven on the world of music.

And on the world itself, as thousands of performances since then have revealed.

Or, If not Elvis– think of  Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Rich Mullins or whoever expresses your disruptive angst and propels it into an awareness that the world is forever changing.

Like it or not, the world changes; sometimes that transforming is not pretty. Sometimes it is even disruptive, destructive, revolutionary. Music–and art generally–needs, in order to be valuable, to reflect the times we live in, and the changes that need to happen–not portraying a rose-colored-glasses dream that masks the profundity and excitement of living on this dangerous planet.

It would have been very hard, you see, for the young German prodigy to adopt the comfortable precision and beauty of his courtly predecessors—Mozart and Haydn. Au contraire, Ludwig caught hold of the gritty thrust of those revolutionary times. He deeply felt that terrible, violent wind blowing out of France; and he did, as any self-respecting genius would do, transform that terrible zeitgeist into revolutionary Music.

A truly new music, never heard before.

Unlike like any orchestra ever heard before.

Better to make disruptive music, than impose bloody revolution.

CharlotteSymph

Be like Beethoven, not like Robespierre.

Work together like a revolutionary Symphony.

Teach the world to ring out Liberty!

King of Soul

No Time for Melody

March 20, 2016

Symphony

These moments in a grand concert hall before the orchestra performs are like no other. Onstage, a half-hundred or more musicians dutifully make last minute preparations while the assembling listeners anticipate the unveiling of their symphonic presentation.

There are, it seems to this viewer, as many ways of making musical preparation for such orchestral events as there are musicians. Violinists are fine-tuning their instruments; many of them dance their fingers rapidly across wooden neck boards, rehearsing that difficult passage in the allegro or that five-measure solo transition in the andante. Beneath bright stage lights, brass-blowers sit together in the back row busily manipulating key-stops on gleaming metal; in the middle of this instrumental world oboes, clarinetists and bassoonists blow into their various tubed configurations with steadily progressing precision. Over in the back corner, percussionists tap, turn and tinker on this, that or the other big drum or little sound-making something-or-other. Polished wooden basso fiddle bodies shine under the lights; soldierly stand-up stringists stand beside them thumping and thinking very hard about that bottom line in the booming rondo or overture that is yet to come. The flutists’ silvery cylinders glint with theatrical brilliance as their masters breathe virtuosity into them. A lovely harpist plucks perfectly strung-up sounds.

Observed all at thece same time, the assembling orchestra appears to be a cacophony of disparate confusion. But as the moment of musical inception draws near, a subtle decreasing of the noise begins to take hold; the senseless soundings wane. A violinist stands, setting his bow to the instrument; then from somewhere inside the collection of sound-contraptions, a solitary musical oboe tone rises above it all, commanding the vacant air with a single, sustained A note. Immediately, as if they were waiting for some specific sound leadership, all the other members respond with their uniquely-voiced A-notes. As the volume of their first unison builds, harmonic thirds, fifths and octaves high and low emerge through the thick air of audience anticipation.

For only a brief moment this preparatory approach to harmony is heard. Then silence.

From behind the side-curtain, the bringer of Symphony walks into the midst of what had been quasi-musical confusion.

He is smiling. So are most of the audience. The thousand-or-so seated congregants express, with applause,  their approval of what is about to happen, implying also with their enthused ovation polite appreciation of what has happened in this large hall many times before.

A symphony. Tonight. March, 2016.

A moment later, in the midst of breathless silence, the Conductor raises his arms, lifting the baton high. Then abruptly he lowers them. And the chaos of sounds that had dominated the stage only a few minutes before has been instantaneously transformed into music, coordinated and arranged in order to express thoughts or feelings about the world.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the music composed for such an event as this was not the same as it is today. Mozart’s skill, for instance, plucked melodies out of thin genius-air and worked them into intricately woven musical masterpieces that beat through the air with perfect precision, like a clock on a Vienna tower.

In the 1700’s Mozart wrote music for an emperor. Emperors and empires imposed a certain kind of order on the world. Mozart’s music expressed that order in an exquisite way. His music was precision and perfection manifested in orchestral form.

A few decades later, Beethoven came along and rearranged all that preposterous musical order, catapulting thunderous innovations into it. Orchestral music, having found intricate construction in the hands of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and others, had found its fullest precision under Mozart’s imaginative mastery.

But when the European world was shaken to its roots by the American revolution, French revolution, Napoleonic bluster and God-only-knows what other political and military juggernauts that were rolling like thunder across the civilized world at that time, a new kind of music was called for. A music that expressed not order, but disruption and passion.

And so there was Beethoven. The first eight explosive notes of his 5th symphony blew a hole in the old order and proclaimed a jousting field of new ideas, new forms of government, and new music. It was a revolutionary age. Even Mozart could get lost in the cataclysm.

Great Music captures the spirit of the times in which it is composed; it captures that spirit and interprets it as  audible, lyrical art.

Last night, we were in Charlotte listening to the Charlotte Symphony perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor. This interesting piece of music was, to my ear, a musical experiment. While a few of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are widely acknowledged as masterful expressions of his musical romanticism, this third symphony communicates a timely, profound disturbance, more-so, I think, than compositional perfection. Sergei Rachmaninoff the early-20th century Russian composed in it 1936.

I call it an experiment because it seems to be a series of dynamic, instrumentally dissonant thrusts; they mount up in rhythmically disparate crescendos, but never  fully resolve in a way that I can thematically identify. In my ear,  it is a tensioned symphony in search of a theme. In search of, perhaps, a melody.

So I was trying to explain to my wife as we left why there’s no way Rachmaninoff could have absolved his musical angst in 1936 by resolving it inappropriately with a catchy melody.

He was living, for crying out loud, in Stalinist Russia; and not only that, half a continent away Hitler’s Third Reich was assembling, under the radar of the Versailles treaty, a massive wehrmacht war machine. In a few years the whole damn world, or half of it anyway, would erupt up in full-blown war. The only order that was emerging in 1936 was the construction of destructive war machines.

It was no time to celebrate an inharmonious world with pleasantries such as harmony and melody.

Here’s a YouTube of the Russian Novosibirsk Philharmonic performing the piece:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h44ZGVe4zCQ

Perhaps my cynical assessment of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 is shaded by my own artful projections. A few years ago, I wrote and published a novel, Smoke, which is all about the year 1937. That writing project was also an experiment, albeit a literary one, in telling the story about a young American who might have sojourned through Europe during that same time of imminent disaster foreshadowing World War II.

Smoke

My great jazzified orchestral adventure

June 14, 2015

I had worked my 63-year-old body to a point of exhaustion last Wednesday afternoon, and so I took a little break from pressure-washing. The green mold that likes to grow on vinyl siding had now been blasted from two more high gable ends of the apartment buildings for which I am responsible. I am, you see, a maintenance guy.

So I slid slowly down the ladder and slogged over to my little shop. Plopping wearily into the padded chair, I activated the radio with expectations of easing for a little spell of time into some fanciful musical escapade. Alas, I was not disappointed. My favorite radio station, WDAV,   http://www.wdav.org/  immediately came through in classic style to whisk my overworked mind far beyond the ladder-heightened adventures of blasting H20 onto doomed algae colonies.

And then, strains of unfamiliar, though strangely captivating, orchestral sound came wafting to my ears. The music was soothing, with an elegant piano that stroked my worn-out being, but it was punctuated occasionally with bursts of symphonic divergence in a fashion that indicated some orchestral work of the early 20th century.

These impressionistic, mildly jazzy strains seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I could not place them. Surely it’s Gershwin, I wondered; the snappy snippets erupting here and there reminded me of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is one of my favorites. The very rhythmical slow-to-intense piano allegrettos landed me in a bewildered ponderance of trying to identify the composer. It was Gershwinesque, for sure, spicy with dynamic thrusts of emergent jazz, and slashing staccato poundings on the keyboard, while rambunctious woodwinds answered in the background, followed by lush strings that tamed the composer’s carefully-constructed disruptions into interludes of pure repose.

Then that captivating first movement energy slid languidly into an adagio second movement that soothed my weary soul like balm in Gilead. I had a few moments of unparalleled restorative calm, a true respite from my pressurizing labors.

Now comfortably installed at my shop’s work table, I began replacing the inner parts of a removed toilet tank, one of the 94 that I regularly maintain.

Suddenly, rapid bursts of precise piano, then bravissimo winds and sassy brass, were bursting forth in the last movement’s Presto prestissimo, affirming  my ruminations that surely this incredible piece of music was the work of some great composer. A few minutes later, sure enough, Joe Brant’s vocal coda identified the opus as Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_(Ravel)

Composed during 1929-31, it was a musical opus that Ravel had said “nearly killed him.” I learned this a day or two later on Wikipedia.

That 25-minute concerto took him two years to write. The piece’s intricacy and innovative energy, with brief boogie-woogified left hand in the last movement and all that jazz, convinces me that the composer’s desperate statement is “nearly” true. This intricate piece of music took a mountain of work. It was an exhaustive labor of love, the outcome of which was to to unify two great traditions of music, old European orchestral and new American jazz, in such a work as this.

Here’s pianist Helene Grimaud performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbNoqzpbc0U

George Gershwin was doing similar renovations in classical music at about the same time as Maurice Ravel. And I was curious about this. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is, I think, so similar in feeling and era-sensitive timing to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I was wondering who came first. I was thinking that Gershwin’s Rhapsody had premiered in 1934. Yesterday I learned on Wikipedia that Ravel’s upstart, jazzified Concerto in G was first performed in 1932.

So Ravel’s groundbreaking innovation scooped Gershwin’s?

Actually, not. As it turned out, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924!  not 1934, as I had thought.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhapsody_in_Blue

Which only makes sense–that the American, being born and raised in the land of the blues, the western continent of jazz’s birth, with Louie Armstrong blowin’ his horn down in N’awlins, King Oliver movin’ up in Chicago, Duke Ellington finessin’ in New York, etc etc., it only makes sense that George would scoop the Frenchman Maurice Ravel in this musical transition from one golden age to another, one old continent to one new one.

Here’s a contemporary YouTube of pianist Makoto Ozone performing Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. But warning! to you classical music purists out there: this is Ozone’s jazzed up version of Gershwin’s jazzed up original composition! George Gershwin would, I believe, be impressed:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxowOVIdnR0

But the discovery of this jazzed-up symphonic scoop is not the end of my story. A little further research early this morning online took me to one of the many black prodigies of American early jazz, Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was ticklin’ the ivories in Harlem and over on 52nd Street back in the day, early ’20’s, before George caught a vision for his blue masterpiece, and before Maurice grabbed hold of his jazzifyin’ Continental groundbreaker Concerto long abouts 1929-31.

Willie the Lion was an amazing, transitional piano impresario, and a legend back in the jazz age. Now this is where my great musical adventure, having begun in a moment of repose on Wednesday, and then morphing through Ravel and Gershwin, right into now, in the midst of Sunday morning’s research-driven blogfest. Are you ready for Willie?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBhbCjSnemE

Listen on!

 

Smoke