Some people watch lots of TV. Some people read a lot. I'm a music person. Mostly I'm a classical music person. Sometimes I listen to Jazz or Blues, but that's more because I'm too lazy to change the radio station when my local NPR affiliate switches from news and culture programming on the weekend. That's not to say I don't have an appreciation, just that I have to work a little harder for it to catch me.
Popular music - the stuff that everyone else seems to like - completely eludes me.

Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)
October  27, 2006

Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony is unique in classical music. In a world where contemporary classical music is a niche even less visible than sub-genres of gospel music, broke on to the charts. No, not the classical charts, the Pop charts. The ones that usually feature Madonna and Britney Spears. Composed in 1976 and recorded in 1991 with a very young soprano named Dawn Upshaw as the vocal soloist, The Symphony of Sorrorful Songs somehow made enough of an impression that  it came to be known outside the small remainders of the classical music-buying public.

Simply put, Gorecky's Third symphony is the musical evocation of grief. Not grief in in a country music sense. Pain in a "They are committing a mass genocide of my people"-sense. Which is fitting, because Gorecki wrote the symphony as a rememberance of the end of Hitler's occupation of Poland.

Each of the three movements in the symphony includes a lengthy soprano solo - a prayer or plea, voiced by a mother or a child, for a child or a parent.  The soloist is grieving and haunted, but her voice swells to transcend pain, into something that is wrought with righteous purity. The words are sung in Polish and in Latin, and their meaning, even without language, is clear from the swelling bass drama beneath them and the pleading anguish in every note formed on the soloist's mouth. Grieving mothers, children lost to brutality, are a thing more universal than any language.

I am literally transfixed by this music. The emotional response I have to it is a wellspring of tears. Tears! I cry as I listen, every time. How can one not respond, knowing that the words sung in the second movement are a farewell letter, found scrawled on a wall at Birkenau, to the mother of a young woman about to be sent to the gas chambers?

I do not know why this piece of music captivated public imagination so. There's no dancing pop diva, nor a pounding bass line nor an amplified electric guitar.  It is a symphony orchestra, a young woman with a powerful voice and some utterly heartbreaking words that must be sung.

The Planets
October  27, 2006

Gustav Holst, despite the germanic name, is another English composer. The Symphonic Suite called "The Planets" is by far his most famous work.  Based on the astrological symbols for each of the classical planets, the most striking piece is undoubtedly Mars, Bringer of War, composed as World War I raged across Europe.

Mars, Bringer of War happens to have been the first piece of music I heard at the first concert I ever went to. It is a march with its meter set  by a madman.  A death march. Five incessant beats to a measure,  furiously pushing toward a climax. It is music that sounds exactly as it should: Young men could very well be sent off to die to those notes. It is angry and sinister and majestic all at once, and it is exactly as captivating as it sounds.  Mars is the true sound of evil. Not a chaotic mass of discordant notes or simple noise for the sake of noise, but instruments surging forward in lock-step, each serving the musical goal  of perverting our bravery and our nobility to the service of generals and war-gods who care nothing for human cost.

Venus, Bringer of Peace serves no less purpose than to be the break of dawn, the day after the rage of Mars comes to an end.  It is gentle, pastoral music, more a lullaby than the eros typically associated with the name of the goddess of love.  Venus is delicate woodwinds and simple string, an airy, diaphanous daydream to come after the nightmare of Mars.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
January  25, 2006

I seem to write a great deal about music with religious overtones.  I don't mean to. It's just that the music I love was often sponsored by the church, or written out of the devotion of the composer.

Thomas Tallis is essentially the giant of pre-Baroque English music. He wrote the Original Anglican church music.  Ralph Vaughn Williams, an English composer who worked mostly in the early 20th century, is well known for his own Anglican Church music, and for taking themes from traditional English folksong to use in his own composition. In the case of the Tallis Fantasia, we have the rare case of a hymn being adopted to a purely secular instrumental work.

The work itself is strikingly beautiful, a composition for strings. Ornate. I hear it, and I see light streaming through stained glass, or the musical version of a sunset. It is majestic and richly varied. It is sensual, slowly building to each crescendo, then descending to simple percussion.

But that's not why I love it.

I love it because, one day, someone asked me to play some music that I like for her. We sat in her bedroom, and I played this long, beautiful piece of music, and she asked me to rub her back.  I rubbed her back literally as noon passed to midnight, and when the music stopped, I caressed her to the memory of I had of its rythmn and pitch. I was literally unaware of the passage of time, even as day became night.

So strongly is this music ingrained within me, that when I hear it, even years later, I can remember how her skin felt to my fingertips, how she smelled that day, the pulse of her breath, and how nervous yet intent I was to make her feel as wonderful as the music I couldn't stop hearing.

January  25, 2006

"The Passion" is the tale of Jesus' suffering leading up to his crucifixion. It's really a pretty popular motif for classical music. Beethoven wrote a Passion. So did Bach. There are dozens of re-tellings of the story in Western Literature, art, music and pretty much every other possible medium. I've even seen a comic book.

There's this composer named Arvo Pärt. He's an Estonian. He's still alive. And the music that he writes is off in a world all its own. I suppose it should be called minimalist, which would put his work in the same world as Philip Glass or maybe John Adams. It's not the same thing. Pärt's music sounds as old as time. It's half-made-up of silences and simple chords that build to pregnant pauses and dramatic echoes. It's not even identifiably Western.

Pärt's "Passio" is his version of St. John's story of the last moments of the messiah, possibly the most dramatic moment in the Christian New Testament. It's a piece for a small ensemble of musicians, an organist, a quartet of singers and two soloists, the airy tenor who speaks the words of Pilate, and a bass, who intones the final words of the son of God.  

There is no "melody" here, no simple, repeated theme. Instead, we are given a conversation. The quartet, representing the Evangelist, sings only in dissonant chords, conveying distress and sorrow. At times Pilate sings, brightly, of his judgement. His voice is nearly a capella - he is alone for all the world. From time to time, Jesus will sing, his simple words slowly booming from the cross.

The rewarding thing about this work, I think, is the measured pace of phrasing, compared with the emotional depth of words being sung, sorrow and solemn both. This is music that walks its own death march, to the inevitability of "It is Finished." I am in no way a person of faith, but in this music I find an emotional response as a listener. I cannot imagine what the story, the words might mean to someone who Believes.

November 2, 2005
The very first Compact Disc I ever bought was the CBS Masterworks recording of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic performing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade and, more importantly, his Russian Easter Overture. It was, I think, 1990, and at the time I didn't even own a CD Player.  Thing is, I had just heard a CD of music that I actually appreciated for the first time, and after that it was imperative that I hear more.  

The Russian Easter Overture is quite simply grand. Swooping, dynamic, exciting and majestic - all things that fit with the title; the resurrection of the son of God is probably enough cause for all adjectives, right? The first thing I thought, the first time I heard classical music from a Compact Disc was "I have to hear the horns and cymbals from the Russian Easter Overture this way." Literally the next day I was in the crummy "Tape World" in the local mega-mall, digging through the roughly three dozen classical CDs they had. In retrospect, it's amazing that they had a recording of it at all.

Scheherezade is one of those overplayed pieces. Oh, it's not in the same shudderiffic category has Pachelbel's Canon in D or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (both of which are still great music; just like that chart-topping ballad that gets played every 20 minutes on "adult contemporary" radio, it's good and then everyone gets tired of it), but it's big-time bread and butter piece for just about every orchestra.  Still, when I was 14, I was learning about classical music in a vacuum. I didn't have radio or anyone else's taste to learn from. So the first time I heard the basso profundo crash of those opening horns - the terrible Sultan of the fable, I found a new love. It's a silly thing to say about one of the tiny group of overplayed classical pieces, but it's a sincere truth as well. Scheherezade is programmatic music. Each of the movements represents one of the surviving tales of the Arabian Nights.  Orchestral music telling a story was for me kind of a new and unique concept at that point. Later I would find Debussy's Le Mer (a portrait of the Sea) and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, both works that represented some visual or narrative concept, but in the years since I first heard the gentle solo violin that represents the great storyteller herself, I have found nothing more evocative.

Leontyne Price Sings Barber
November 1, 2005
Samuel Barber holds a dear place in my heart. If I write about music, I'll write a great deal about Samuel Barber. As a young person I spent a great deal of time in practice rooms; I'm a classically trained baritone. When I was 16, my high-school choir teacher handed me her tattered copy of the G. Schirmer collection of Barber's Complete songs, along with a cassette tape of her performance of ALL of them. I think now that she meant to encourage my musical talents, something that I really took for granted (I know she wanted to strangle me at the time, as I never thought of even the possibility of a career in music).  But still, these songs were in English and to a one they were gorgeous; literate, romantic and lyrical. I learned them all and performed many of them in recitals and auditions. They represented my absolute favorite vocal music.

I haven't sung out loud in over a decade now.

A few days ago I bought this wonderful recording of Leontyne Price singing those songs that I love. The recordings were done live, with an audience and simple piano accompaniment. Leontyne Price is of course one of the greatest sopranos of the previous century, but as I listen, what I remember is my teacher's voice on a poorly dubbed tape.

The real treasure on the disc, however, is a song that I didn't learn, "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." I'd heard it a few times before, but never really gotten to LISTEN to it.  I'm glad that I have, at last. The text is pastoral and nostalgic. It's not a song sung by a child, but a rememberance of being a child, and it is lovely for that as much as Barber's score. There is not enough music of its sort in our world.

October 26, 2005
Right now I'm listening to the soundtrack from the HBO series Carnivale. The score is really a standout; it added tremendously to the atmosphere of the show. It's all minor-key and mournful stuff, mostly acoustic guitar or fiddle, and it works pretty well for me as background music  as I sit here "working".
The thing that really caught my attention (enough to pay $15 for a soundtrack album) to this particular was the strings/violin/piano theme associated with the character "Jonesy" from the show. I had a real hair-standing-on-end moment the first time that cue played on the show.
Scoring for a TV show is something most people don't notice. I guess that's to be expected, but TV shows and movies are more-or-less the only place most people are exposed to classical or classical-like music.
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