Tag Archives: Classical Music

Music for a Pandemic, Part 2

Stress rules in our lives right now: financial stress, security stress — how safe are we now? — health stresses, familial stresses. Politicians do nothing to alleviate these stresses but just add to them, especially the White House: there is a special stress watching their incompetence and narcissism and abdication of responsibility when they need to be leading and governing effectively. It’s painful to hear from friends in other countries who cannot understand how the president was elected when he was so clearly unqualified and a buffoon.

I returned to my fulltime job this past week and added a layer of stress I’d forgotten. While I know I am fortunate to have my job, my gratitude really doesn’t touch the stress that goes with returning after a four-month absence. What could go wrong, went wrong, especially with technology.  I found myself seeking ways to relax or take my mind off what I had encountered in the office. By the way, I do love my job, and it was wonderful to see my co-workers and boss again, but as with anything, there are good days and bad days.

Last time, I wrote about the first couple of months of lockdown in my life and the music I listened to based on my primary emotions at the time. This time, I want to write about coming out of that black hole of emotion at the beginning of the lockdown and being able to see some hope and the beginnings of a new normal way of life. This includes the return to work, riding public transit morning and evening, wearing a face mask everywhere (not as a fashion accessory!), and seeing people I hadn’t seen in months.

beethoven

If Bach is my go to composer for soothing, calming music, Beethoven is my go to for energy. Even his Andantes possess a driving force. The past few months I’ve been drawn to his extroverted and inspiring music like the Ninth Symphony and the Emperor Piano Concerto. But the one piece that continues to pop into my mind when I’ve needed a lift and a smile is his First Piano Concerto, especially the final movement. He demonstrates that he was writing jazzy classical music long before Gershwin. Listen to the whole movement but especially starting about 2:36.

 

laughter music

Beethoven makes me laugh often. I’ve written about music humor at this blog before. Then there’s the unintended humor that I’ve been finding lately. For example, I’m not sure that Stravinsky meant that sforzando chord toward the end of his Firebird Suite to be funny, but ever since I heard some orchestra musicians talking about watching the audience as the music approaches that chord to see who jumps in his or her seat when the orchestra plays it, I have found it to be a giggler moment. I doubt very much that Beethoven intended the opening of his Fifth Symphony to be funny, but it always makes me laugh. And then there’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, written immediately after the end of the Second World War, and expected to be triumphant music. This symphony always brings a smile to my face.

passionate music

I’ve been drawn to what I call passionate music, whether that is in a spiritual sense or in an emotional sense. For the spiritual, I go to Anton von Bruckner’s symphonies, especially the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth. For emotional passion, Peter Tchaikovsky fills the bill, whether his ballet music or his symphonies or concertos, his music is passionate to me. I also like to listen to my “happy” music composed by Antonin Dvorak because of his lilting, dancing rhythms. I feel this music in my body and I just want to move.

As we learn to live in our new normal with the coronavirus, music can help us cope. What I would find truly unbearable is a world without music.

Music for a Pandemic, Part 1

Self-isolation has reminded me of what astronauts must endure before going into space. They not only need to be “clean” of any pathogens, but they must be able to endure the psychological strain of being alone for long periods of time. Introverts find this less of a strain than extroverts, to be sure, and not since the first manned flights has the U.S. sent astronauts alone — usually there’s a crew of at least three and with the shuttle there were more. But there is a psychological effect of traveling at high speeds through a vacuum surrounded by blackness and far stars and galaxies. And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of psychological effect from self-isolation due to the pandemic.

Since March, one way of dealing with it: I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Primarily classical music, but some classic rock and movie music. I can almost chart my emotions based on the music I’ve been listening to. Have you had the same experience? Or maybe you don’t realize it.  And sometimes the absence of music says something, too. Think about it: we are a music culture. I’ve thought back to what music specifically helped me.

Soothing

Initially, I sought music that would calm my nerves and fears. I listened to news reports about the virus, of course, but not all the time. What drew me was all music, a variety, a reassurance that humans had created such diversity of sound and continued to create it. So, I listened a lot to my local public radio station, KSJN, or streamed it on my computer while I worked online. It soothed my nerves to hear the on-air hosts talking about music, to listen to the variety of music they chose, and since I listen to this station a lot, all the voices were familiar.

From there, I moved to the music of J. S. Bach. I find his music soothing because of its clarity, its gorgeous melodic lines, its harmonic precision. I find Bach sublime in the best of times, and when I’m nervous and afraid, its clarity calms me.

comforting

Bach also comforts, and I am drawn to solo instrumental music when I’m looking for soothing and comforting music.  I played the piano, so that is usually where I start. I listened to a lot of solo piano music by Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. And then I moved on to Mozart, specifically his piano concertos.

angry

After the first six weeks, and especially after witnessing the federal government’s incompetence and chaos in its response to the pandemic, anger became my dominant emotion. I was especially angry at the lack of respect, consideration, and compassion for other human beings, such a shocking thing to see in America. I began listening to Anton von Bruckner’s symphonic music for its humanity, its spirituality, and its massiveness of sound that I could immerse myself in. A favorite is the Finale of his Symphony No. 8.

frustrated

I still feel frustrated at times, and a couple months ago, I often felt frustrated and angry. I found myself listening to a lot of choral music during this time, as well as the music of Johannes Brahms. I have always sensed a longing in Brahms’ music, of what specifically I guess only Brahms knew, or perhaps he didn’t and that’s the reason it came out in his music. At any rate, I longed for change, for solutions, for effective treatments for the coronavirus, for normal life again. I felt frustration at how slow everything was moving. Oddly, in addition to Brahms, I found Verdi’s Requiem helpful in expressing the anger and frustration I felt, especially in the Dies Irae.

terrified

Underneath all of these emotions was a terror so profound and immense, that I could not approach it straight on, but had to come at it through the music I listened to. Who wants to think about how terrified they are? I fall into the high risk group that usually has a rough time of it if infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and I was terrified of ending up on a ventilator, surviving but not being myself every again, or dying. For some people, perhaps the theme music to the movie Jaws captures that terror — indeed, not knowing what danger lurks beneath the surface is especially terrifying. For me, though, the composer who most effectively captures terror in his music is Dmitri Shostakovich.

next time

In Part 2, I’ll share the music I’ve been listening to for the last month or so and the emotional reasons for my choices.

Stay well, everyone.

Author! Author! Where have you been?

Where I write

Writing! she shouted. Yes, it’s been over two months since my last post here and I must apologize for the silence. But I’ve been writing. Yes. Writing. Just not blog posts.

What have I been writing? Perceval’s Shadow, the first revision. It’s done. I finished the edits. I finished entering the edits into the computer. Then I created the notes for the second revision and began sorting through my Perceval series files to find the working file and first draft files for Perceval in Love, the third novel in the series. The working file bulges with notes, research articles, photos, questions, and doodles. I had completed nine chapters of the first draft in 2007-8. My rough outline imagines a good 23 chapters. I have my work cut out for me.

The first step is to read through all the notes and piece together what was in my mind all those years ago. The next step will be to read through those first nine chapters. At that point, I hope to dive right into chapter ten.

But I haven’t been working only on the Perceval series. Last weekend I read aloud and edited the sci fi novella that I finished a while ago. It was the third draft. Reading it aloud allowed me to hear all sorts of awkwardness and mistakes that I’d made, showed me where I needed to punch up the action or tone it down. And I incorporated the feedback from beta readers that I’d gotten in March. I read it aloud over two days. This morning, I went through the edits and entered them into what is now the fourth draft of the novella. I’m feeling solid about it, in my bones that it’s as done as it’s going to be. So, stay tuned for what will happen next with it!

I miss June when I was at home recuperating and not working fulltime. No, I didn’t write a word during that month, but of course now I wish I had. My mind and its response to illness fascinates me. I know when I am really ill because I cannot read and I cannot write. Probably because I don’t regard writing and reading as distractions like TV or movies. When I am ill, I seek distraction so I watch a lot of old TV and movies, binge watch British mystery TV and spy shows. When I am ill, I have time, and my mind focuses on supporting my body in its healing. Nothing must interfere.

My plan going forward? Perceval in Love. And I’ll search for an editor to go over Perceval’s Shadow after I finish the third revision. I am happy to be writing (and reading) again and my mind has changed its focus. A surprise earlier this past week left me shocked: I had Googled my name and the results showed me that other writers had been quoting my writing (giving me credit, which pleased me). The quotes were from essays I’d written about classical music for ClassicalMPR.org. I had no idea that this was happening! How lovely.

A Powerful Emotional Combination

Yesterday morning, while at work, I was listening to my local public radio station and a program interviewing the two singer/actors who are playing Tony and Maria in the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story. The movie of this musical is my all-time favorite movie musical but I’ve never seen it produced on stage, so I’m looking forward to attending a performance of it at the Guthrie. As part of the program, the two singers each sang one song alone, then one together. At the first notes of the first song, “Maria,” I was crying.

Maria, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.

I knew why. It’s not only the words of the song, but the music. It was Leonard Bernstein’s genius the way he fused music to the words in the songs of West Side Story. After years of listening to this music, I also think the music itself tells the story of Tony and Maria, their tragic love, as well as the tragedy of New York’s West Side in the 1950’s. This musical, though, is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in a different time, place, and with two families played by two New York City street gangs. I saw a production of Shakespeare’s play at the Guthrie last fall, and despite the tragic story, it didn’t elicit the same powerful emotional response from me as West Side Story does. What little music there is in the Shakespeare, often at the director’s discretion, usually has little to do with the emotional themes of the play.

Composers and writers have known for centuries the power of words set to music. Does that same power exist when words describe or evoke music? I’ve been thinking about this question this week because I’m reading a mystery novel about musicians, music, and murder. I’ve also been writing, with the Perceval series, novels set in the music world in which music plays a role in terms of setting, characterization, and subtext. So, reading Gerald Elias’ mystery Death and the Maiden this week has me thinking about words and music in a different way.

The title of Elias’ mystery is also the title of an extremely famous string quartet by Franz Schubert, which he based on a song he’d composed using the poem “Der Tod und das Maedchen” by Matthias Claudius. The poem is an exchange between Death and a young woman as Death tries to win the young woman’s trust and life. So, as I’ve been reading Elias’ mystery, I’ve had the subtext of the song as well as the string quartet in my mind. However, I’m not as familiar with this string quartet as I am with other chamber music, so I’ve bookmarked a lovely performance of it at YouTube for my own reference. Elias does a good job of describing the music as well as its challenges for the musicians playing it, and using language that is encouraging to the reader to seek out the music and listen to it. I highly recommend listening to it, focused only on the music and nothing else, with eyes closed.  The second movement is the “Death and the Maiden” theme and variations.

Elias uses the interpersonal and musical dynamics of playing in a string quartet as the core of his mystery. Each musician has his or her own perspective on the music, and in a quartet, the four perspectives are melded to form the whole in performance. When there’s conflict about the music, or among the lives, the music can reflect that, often with great intensity.

Looking at Elias’ mystery novel as well as my own Perceval series, I’ve realized that I am using music in my writing to illuminate character as well as making it Evan Quinn’s profession. The emotional connection is more between Evan and the music, not between a reader and the music. So writing about music is one degree removed from words set to music. It would be different if the music I mention in the novels could be playing at the same time of the reading. Elias uses the music to educate about music, music history, and music performance. In Death and the Maiden, he also adds the dimension of the string quartet and its unique performance experience. I’ve enjoyed Elias’ mystery novels, his curmudgeon protagonist, Daniel Jacobus, and the different perspectives on the classical music world that he brings to each book. If you know nothing about classical music, you can still enjoy the stories as murder mysteries, and Jacobus as a unique, entertaining character.

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?