Tag Archives: music

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.

Prince and Beethoven

PrinceSymbol150The last few days, I’ve seen a lot of purple.  I live in Minnesota, and everywhere I’ve been, purple has appeared — purple clothing, purple light, purple banners, purple flowers, purple everywhere.  Purple is my favorite color, but it’s still astonishing to see so much of it.  Cars drive by blaring the music of Prince, a burst of sound and then gone. On Friday, my earworm was the first six notes of “Purple Rain.” The music world has lost a lot of fine musicians this year, both in the classical realm as well as the pop/rock.  Prince’s mysterious death is only the latest.

I confess: I know little of Prince’s music.  He’s been a presence in my state, though, since his birth, and during the last nearly 40 years has followed his creative soul here, far from the distractions of fame or notoriety. During the last 48 hours, I’ve learned just how prolific he was as a musician, songwriter, and performer.  He worked hard.  He remained true to his inner muse, to his musical imagination.  What he produced could have been dismissed and rejected because it didn’t fit with current music trends.  But it was accepted as innovative and original.  He was lucky.  He persevered.  He did what he could not not do.

Photo from icadoo.com.au

Photo from icadoo.com.au

Something that’s intrigued me about Prince that I’ve heard over and over the last few days is that he blended music genres, established his own “sound” and broke boundaries.  That reminded me of another short musician who lived  over 200 years ago: Ludwig von Beethoven.  Probably a major difference between the two is Beethoven read music, composed on paper using musical notation.  From what I’ve heard about Prince, he was self-taught, didn’t read music, and composed by playing, although I’d think that at some point he’d have someone write it all down for other musicians.  Beethoven, though, was one of the pop musicians and composers of his day, like Prince.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven also broke boundaries in classical music.  He learned how to follow the rules first, and composed music in the accepted forms and styles.  Then came his Third Symphony.  His Fourth Piano Concerto.  The piano sonatas.  The string quartets.  And of course the Ninth Symphony.  All new, all revolutionary.  He was a pianist who wrote incredible music for orchestra, but he had some challenges when it came to vocal music.  He didn’t allow the challenges to become obstacles that stopped him, though.  Like Prince, who seems to have turned any obstacles into opportunities to make music.  If Beethoven were alive today, would he have liked Prince?  Did Prince like Beethoven’s music?

I’ve been reading a lot of memories of Prince also the last few days.  They’ve reminded me of my own brief encounter with him many years ago.  At the time, I’d heard of him but was more immersed in classical music.

I returned to Minnesota after a trip, landing at MSP on a beautiful, sunny late spring day.  I left the terminal to catch a cab and walked past a shining white car, maybe a town car or a modest limo.  I crossed the road in front of it, and as I looked to the left to check oncoming traffic, the guy in the white car waved to me, he smiled a really big smile like he was seeing an old friend, waving excitedly. I didn’t know the guy, but he made me smile, and I waved back at him.  I crossed over to the first available cab.  The driver looked at me slack-jawed as I got in the back seat.  “You know Prince?”  I started to shake my head and ask “What Prince?” when it hit me.  He was talking about Prince the pop music star.  I looked back at the white car but it was gone.  Yeah, that was Prince sitting in that white car making me smile.




Listening to Classical Music

The last two Saturdays I’ve written about attending a classical music concert.  So now what?  What do you do after the concert? Well, you could attend more concerts, of course.  And you could also make a conscious choice to listen to more classical music on a daily basis.


What makes classical music different?

I finally identified a song the other day that had been dogging me for the last year. It was used in a TV commercial. I discovered that it’s an old Queen hit called “Another One Bites the Dust.”  I love old rock music, folk rock and popular music, but my absolutely favorite music to listen to is classical.  Why?

Classical music is classical because of its long tradition that includes polyphony, melody, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, meter, and tonality.  All that sounds very technical, but it boils down to the approach to organizing sound or tones.  With rock music, for example, the meter tends to always be in either 2 or 4, i.e. 2 or 4 beats to a measure of the music.  The melody can be gorgeous, like with The Beatles, but the harmony will be simpler than in jazz or classical music. So rock music is like eating s’mores.  Classical music is like eating beef burgundy with more depth of flavors and more complex ingredients.  A good music appreciation book like Joseph Machlis’ The Enjoyment of Music will go into more detail about the elements of classical music to enhance listening pleasure.

Listening to classical music can be relaxing and energizing at the same time.  It can stir the emotions like other music, true, but there is a depth to the sound that only really good jazz can equal.  When you’re just beginning to listen to classical music, what should you do?  Anything special?


No, nothing special.  In fact, if you have kids, I suggest that you listen to classical music with them and watch how they listen.  Kids just open themselves to the music without judgement. And that is the perfect way to listen, in my opinion.  Close your eyes, sit back, and let the sound wash over you.  Let your mind wander.  Or think about nothing but the sound.

As you learn more about classical music, you can apply your new knowledge to the music.  For example, listening for meter changes or key changes — major to minor or vice versa are the easiest to identify — or identifying the different lines (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in the music.

Where is Classical Music?

Besides attending classical music concerts, there are other sources, too.  Explore the FM band on your radio for your local classical music station, usually a public radio station.  You can also explore internet radio and listen to classical music stations from all over the world, or that are focused on specific kinds of classical music, e.g. Baroque, Romantic, etc. or for a specific instrument, e.g. orchestra, piano, voice, etc.  Finally, you can download the music from Amazon or other music stores, or buy CDs.  I buy CDs so that I can add them to my music library and play on other players.

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

The Benefits of Classical Music

Yes, there are benefits to listening to classical music.  Like meditation, it changes the electrical activity in the brain.  It has been shown to lower blood pressure.  I find that it is a door to my imagination — it triggers my mind to produce images or stories to go with the sounds.  It can be deeply relaxing and soothing.  Years ago when I was going through an intensely stressful time, under threat from a phone stalker, I listened to Brahms’ First Piano Concerto all the time.  It mirrored my emotions, allowing me to feel them in a safe way and help me process the stress.  The second movement soothed me.  We use classical music at times of celebration as well as times of profound loss.  I incorporate it into my life on a daily basis because it makes me feel good, and it makes my brain feel good.

In Conclusion….

Classical music gets a bad rap as being something for elitists.  It’s really not.  It’s music for everyone whether you’re interested in the Western European tradition or another, like the fascinating Indian classical music that is based on a different music scale.  Music transcends boundaries of all kinds….

Inside the Classics

Research finds me even when I’m trying to enjoy an evening out.  This past Wednesday evening, I attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis entitled “Inside the Classics: The Firebird.”  I love Stravinsky’s music to “The Firebird” ballet, so I was really looking forward to this concert.  And what a delight!  During the first half, hosted by Sam Bergman, a violist in the orchestra, and Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, Assistant Conductor of the orchestra and conductor that evening, I learned about ballet music circa 1910 and how Stravinsky’s music for three ballets, “The Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite of Spring,” broke all the rules and shoved music (and audiences) forward into the 20th century. (Who is the composer who will do that for music and audiences in the 21st century?)  I learned about the four different scores Stravinsky composed of “The Firebird,” and the most popular, the orchestral suite composed in 1919, and the copyright woes Stravinsky experienced until he moved to the U.S.  (Authors can relate to the last.)  Two dancers from the James Sewell Ballet, Penelope Freeh and Justin Leaf, performed in costume an excerpt from the ballet accompanied by the orchestra, and Ms. Hicks played musical examples of themes from Stravinsky’s three ballets on the piano.  The commentary from Mr. Bergman and Ms. Hicks had a friendly tone and was laced with good humor.  During the summary of the ballet’s plot, orchestra musicians used props to illustrate characters and their behavior — their “acting” participation must have taken a certain amount of persuasion on Mr. Bergman’s part but was great fun and added a nice human dimension to the music.  Usually everyone is so very serious and intense on stage.  This concert series is more casual and designed to blend education and entertainment.  

 After intermission, Mr. Bergman introduced the second half and talked about a blog at the Minnesota Orchestra’s website that he and Ms. Hicks are writing for the Inside the Classics series (link on my blogroll).  They write about the experience of starting a new concert series; their experiences as orchestra musician and conductor, respectively; and answer questions about the series or general music questions.   The concert’s second half was a full performance by the orchestra of the 1919 “The Firebird” orchestral suite.  Although not that much happens in the ballet, much happens in the music, and the Minnesota Orchestra gave an especially fine performance of it.  Their ensemble playing has improved so much over the last four years that now it’s breathtaking and powerful in its precision.  The concert ended with a brief question and answer session with Ms. Hicks and Mr. Bergman for anyone who wished to stay.

The next day, I made my way in cyberspace to the Inside the Classics blog and found a goldmine.  I have wished for something like this that I can use as background reference for my Perceval novels — what is the life of an orchestra musician really like?  What is the life of a conductor really like?  I have been researching these questions for several years now but I am always open to hearing more.  Each conductor or musician brings his or her own unique style to their lives and how they lead them.  I have tried to make my conductor/musician Evan Quinn unique in his life and experience, also, and as authentic as I can make him.  

In truth, when I first began researching conductors and conducting, I prayed to meet a conductor who’d be so interested in my novel he’d be willing and offer to be a friend/buddy, someone I could call with questions or meet with occasionally to talk.  None of my fellow music students in college went into conducting.  I have been fortunate to interview conductors and orchestra musicians over the years who were generous with their time and experiences, interested and willing to help, and I have been grateful for the material they provided.  But I never found a “conductor buddy.”  Now, I don’t really need one for research but it would certainly be wonderful (and probably a miracle) to have a “conductor/buddy” to read the novels, give feedback.  Alas, I suspect that conductors spend more time reading music scores and preparing for rehearsals/concerts than reading novels…. 

I recommend the Inside the Classics blog to anyone interested in classical music.