Tag Archives: Classical Music

Heart-wrenching Music

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

During the holiday season of late November through December each year, I confess that I have a tendency to tune out Christmas music, i.e. Christmas carols that are played ad infinitum in public spaces. There is still some Christmas music, however, that has the power to move me. Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”) with its inherent stillness can give me goosebumps. I love it especially sung by a lyric tenor. Certain sections of Handel’s Messiah can also bring tears to my eyes. But that’s about it nowadays.  I don’t know if it’s just the constant repetition, year in and year out during the holidays, or the fact that I performed all the holiday songs when I was growing up, whether in choirs or in an orchestra. I now have a tendency to avoid Christmas music.

Thinking about Christmas music sent my mind wandering down the path of music that is emotionally moving. All music is emotionally moving in some way since music is emotion in sound. But I’m thinking of that music that has just the right vibrational frequency or whatever it is that will bring tears to my eyes. When I was writing advertising copy for arts organizations, I remember one Marketing Director talking about the phrases and words that he would not approve in ad copy for describing music: “heart-wrenching,” “tear your heart out,” and so on. He thought that these words and phrases described death more than life. But poetically speaking, music moves the heart, sometimes violently, in different ways.

Here is a list of music that I find especially moving to my heart (sometimes wrenching it, too) and that I never tire of hearing:

Prokofiev

Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, Movement 2: This sweet, sublime melody played by the violin soloist over a pizzicato accompaniment always manages to take my breath away and concentrate my attention. There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire that I know of.  If you’d like to listen for yourself, it’s here, and the second movement begins at 11:00.

Bruckner

Bruckner Symphony No. 8: This magnificent symphony is a deeply emotional sound journey for me.  The first time I heard it was in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, and it was like sitting on a beach with waves of sound rolling over me. While Bruckner is known for big brass moments and loud passages, he also wrote some extraordinarily lyrical and poignant moments. If you’d like to listen to this symphony, here’s quite a good recording here. The conductor in this video is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a renowned Bruckner conductor, who was also the Conductor Emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Bach Concerto for 2 Violins, Movement 2: I don’t think most people consider Bach when thinking about emotionally moving music, but he wrote some extraordinary music. This concerto is just one example, and the second movement is especially moving to me. In this recording, the second movement begins at 4:00. The two violins are like two voices intertwining.

Verdi’s Requiem: Verdi is best known as an opera composer, and this Requiem is operatic. To me, it is the best example of music capturing the stages of grief, with a Dies Irae that beautifully shows what anger sounds like.  For me, though, it’s the final movement that can leave me sobbing. This final movement was the last music performed at Princess Diana’s funeral service. You can listen to the final movement here.

Elgar

Elgar “Nimrod”: The British composer Edward Elgar is known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches and for his Enigma Variations in which he composed a series of variations on a theme that only he knew because he didn’t include it in the piece. Each variation is a musical portrait of a dear friend of Elgar’s. The “Nimrod” variation, often used in memorials especially for Brits, was written for Elgar’s friend Augustus Jaeger who supported and encouraged his music composition when Elgar, in depression, was in despair and thinking of giving it up.  Here’s a lovely performance of it.

Brahms First Piano Concerto: The pianist Rudolf Serkin once commented that Brahms’ music was all about memory.  I think of it as being about longing for something that can never be. This concerto begins with a tumultuous orchestral introduction as if Brahms was raging against something, but then it quiets.  The piano comes in with the most sublime music, I think, in all of the piano repertoire, and continues throughout this concerto.  The second movement is a perfect example of Brahms’ longing in his music.  I recommend listening to the entire concerto here.

Classical music is full of “heart-wrenching” music.  Perhaps you have your own list?

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Maestro or Maestra?

Mariss Jansons conducting

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

On Thanksgiving, Classic FM published at its website an article by Lizzie Davis about the renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and his reactions to changes in the conducting world over the course of his career.  Mr. Jansons is 70 and has been conducting professionally since he was 28.  He belongs to a generation that would not have considered a woman capable of conducting a symphony orchestra or any other kind of musical ensemble. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol leveled at Mr. Jansons for this comment. He was honest. He puts his comment in the context of his world and his experience. We can disagree with what he said, but I think condemning him for being sexist is going a bit far. Yes, he’s old. He’s not caught up with the rest of the world in his view of the world and acceptance of capable women who contribute so much. He’s honest about that, too. (Mariss Jansons issued an apology here.)

Maestro or Maestra? When I was conducting research into conductors and conducting for the Perceval series, I’d occasionally hear what I considered to be rather illogical statements from conductors — a few of the men were quite well known. Age definitely influenced their thinking most often. Anyone under 40 today does not remember a time when women did not have the freedom or opportunities they have now, and were often restricted to “female” occupations like teaching and nursing when they did have to work. Men ruled, so men made the rules in society. Male expectations of women focused on sex, family, cooking, housekeeping, in other words, taking care of and obeying men. Women were not expected to go out in the world and accomplish other things. This is the world that Mariss Jansons comes from and hasn’t left, really.

Women fought hard to get to where they are today, and they still must fight, because there are still men who want to go back to the way things were. I believe that quite a lot of the sexual harassment, abuse, and rape that is now being revealed after being hidden for so long is just one more step in women achieving equal status with men in American society. The sexual misconduct has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with men establishing power and dominance over women. They use sexuality as a tool for control. And by trying to perpetuate the message that women are the “weaker” sex and not capable of doing anything but be wives, mothers, and keepers of homes, men are still trying to control and dominate women. Some women still prefer to be controlled and dominated by men because the men give them security and stability, and the women don’t have to be responsible for their own lives. Women conductors are not part of this category, clearly.

During my research, I also learned that conductors don’t generally have a lot of time to attend concerts conducted by other conductors, so it doesn’t surprise me if Mr. Jansons has not seen many women conducting orchestras. We have many more now than when I first began my conductor research years ago, and some have become famous — for example, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, and Xian Zhang, among others. At the Minnesota Orchestra, there are currently two women conductors on staff: Sarah Hicks and Akiko Fujimoto.  Kathy Saltzman Romey conducts the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus that works most often with the Minnesota Orchestra. As far as intelligence, musicianship, and performance ability, women stand equal to men on the podium. (If you want to check out a list of female conductors, they are here, or do a Google search on “list women conductors.” You may be surprised.)

Conductors are human beings, as imperfect, flawed, subject to ignorance and misinformation as any of us. My favorite illogical comment by a conductor, of course, was about the height of conductors. That conductor (who was shorter than me) stated emphatically that tall men make terrible conductors because their height slows them down. I’m sure all the conductors out there who are over six feet tall would disagree….

Future Classics

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Those of you who are regulars here at Anatomy of Perceval will recognize the title of this post.  It’s the title of the concert the Minnesota Orchestra gives at the end of the intense week called the Composer Institute.  Seven young composers from all over the country come to Minneapolis to work with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as well as attend seminars about the business of being a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses each composer’s submitted work, and then at the end of the week, performs all the pieces in concert. It’s my favorite Minnesota Orchestra concert each season.

While this season’s group of composers offered interesting listening and quite a variety, I’m still waiting for the composer who will feel challenged to write tonal music using melody, harmony, and maybe even a form that makes sense. The first half of the concert stood out with pieces that lacked resolution at the end.  I wanted to shout, “It’s OK to resolve the sound at the end!” The entire concert also offered a tour of sound effects, including human voices talking, interspersed with the instruments playing tones, sirens, and lots of glissando.

I thought three of the composers managed to achieve a goal with their pieces. One composer talked about being influenced by the sight of the night sky, the points of light that are the stars, the immensity of the blackness, and a feeling of being inside of that night sky. We are a part of the universe, of course. But I understood the sensations she talked about because I’ve had them myself. The night sky is an amazing and profound sight. The sounds she began her piece with were all staccato points of sound.  Gradually, the staccato sounds open into a vast flow of sound that seemed to swirl around us through the air. I was quite enchanted by this piece.

Another composer talked about his work with his mentor, the composer Steven Stucky, and how working with him had influenced how he composed the piece he’d brought to Minneapolis.  His piece was probably the most tonal of the seven, with lush strings and restless woodwinds.  The third composer was inspired by his Arabic heritage and a famous Arabic singer, Umm Kulthum. He incorporated Arabic music in his piece as well as Western tropes. It was mesmerizing.

My history with the Composer Institute begins in 2006 when I attended the rehearsals as part of my research for the Perceval series.  Evan Quinn is a conductor who encourages young composers, and he meets a Maori composer with whom he becomes good friends. I wanted to learn what composers go through to get a piece performed by an orchestra — it’s a lot harder than you’d think. It was interesting, also, to see some parallels with the writing life. What has been a near constant every year: the dearth of music I could hum as I left Orchestra Hall.  While I understand (and support) the composer’s need to be true to his imagination and what flows from it onto the staff paper (or screen), I often wonder if what they are composing is in fact what they truly want to listen to. Writers often comment about writing what they want to read and hoping that other people will want to read it, too.  It’s possible for both writers and composers, however, to produce such inaccessible works that no one but them will want to read or listen to it.

In writing also we talk a lot about “voice.” Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I think of composers having unique musical voices also — Beethoven doesn’t sound at all like Brahms who doesn’t sound like Shostakovich, etc.  When I attend Future Classics, I hope to hear a strong, unique musical voice that’s comfortable with itself. Each year, I go away disappointed (except for one year, a composer brought a couple movements from a symphony he’d composed and his musical voice sounded quite mature). It’s not easy to compose music.  It’s not easy to write fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Both demand that struggle to find the voice and that takes time.

I look forward to next season’s Future Classics. While this particular concert can be challenging, it’s never dull and usually gives me a lot to think about for days afterward. Special thanks to Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for continuing to support young composers and new music.

 

Book Review: “Devil’s Trill” by Gerald Elias

For me, the mark of a good story is if I continue to think about it long after I’ve finished reading it.  Well, Devil’s Trill, a mystery by Gerald Elias has been on my mind since I finished reading it at lunch yesterday.  There are two reasons my mind won’t let go: first, it’s a good, fun story that I enjoyed, and second, it’s a story set in the classical music world like my own novel Perceval’s Secret. Not many writers have chosen to set their stories in the classical music world, so I’m always interested in reading one that is.

The protagonist of Devil’s Trill is violinist Daniel Jacobus, getting on in years, blind, and the ultimate curmudgeon, but still passionate about music and instilling the love of music. Set in 1983 — pre-computers and cell phones and Spotify or YouTube — Jacobus has agreed to take on a young Japanese student sent to him by a good friend in Japan. Yumi Shinagawa turns out to be the real deal in many ways and receptive to Jacobus’ pedagogy. The following weekend, he decides to attend the recital at Carnegie Hall of the 9-year-old winner of the Grimsley Violin Competition, held every 13 years for violinists no older than 13 and run by the Musical Arts Project or MAP. He also attends the post-concert reception where the extremely valuable and rare violin the winner had played, the Piccolino Stradivarius, disappears. Jacobus becomes the top suspect in this theft. Into his life walks Nathaniel Williams, a musician friend who’s become an insurance investigator, who wants Jacobus (along with Yumi, it turns out) to assist him in finding the stolen violin. From this point on, the mystery of the stolen violin intertwines with the political and financial intrigues of the classical music world, along with the murder of the Grimsley winner’s violin teacher.

Elias does an excellent job of illuminating the value placed on certain violins over others, the fine line music organizations walk between pure entertainment and art, and the importance of music to humans. The title refers to a violin sonata composed by an Italian named Tartini. It’s famous for its difficulty, and for its backstory.  Tartini claimed to have had a dream of the Devil playing the violin and when he woke, he tried to capture on paper the music he heard in his dream. The difference between dream and reality is a subterranean stream that flows under this story, giving it depth.  I loved that Jacobus was also a teacher — it gave Elias the opportunity to also illuminate music as well as his knowledge about violin playing and the violin itself.

He took a huge gamble with Jacobus, however.  This character is not at all a lovable curmudgeon.  In fact, for a while I thought he was definitely irritating and stuck at his own pity party. But I was also intrigued by his irritating me, and eventually Elias reveals more of Jacobus’ story — how he became blind, what is important to him and how the world frustrates him at almost every turn. He shouts a LOT. But he also has the kind of rat-terrier-like mind that’s perfect for solving a mystery, especially one that involves a stolen violin. The supporting characters were not nearly as well developed, primarily because they are “seen” through Jacobus’ experience and point of view.

I loved the mystery, though. Certainly not your usual mystery story, it had much different twists and turns to it than usual that grew out of character motivations as well as the reality of the music world in 1983. And the murder mystery turned out to be another twist that upped the stakes for Jacobus to find the Piccolino Strad. I loved also returning to the classical music world.  Not nearly as glam or stuffed shirt as so many people assume, it can get pretty cut-throat and dirty. And when a violin is worth $8 million, it can also involve a lot of money. I will say, however, regarding plot, that Elias provides the reader with a marvelous twist near the end, and then seems to drop it right there. It left me wondering what happened and if Elias knew what he’d done. As it turned out, and much to my relief, he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t playing completely fair with the reader.  I hope that in his subsequent novels, he does a better job of that.

If there were as many novels about musicians as there are about police officers, doctors, or lawyers, not to mention all sorts of criminals, maybe the reading public would be more inclined to read more books set in the classical music world. Devil’s Trill is definitely a good place for anyone who enjoys mysteries to start.  And I look forward to reading more of Gerald Elias’ books.

Big Classical Music

It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping.  I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.

But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.

Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime.  He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it.  And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school.  So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich.  His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory.  Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony.  In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived.  A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.

And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today.  Why is that?  Why aren’t composers writing big music today?  And what about big literature?  Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?

When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion.  It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music.  And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!

Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts.  His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity.  Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.

The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion.  The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.