Der Erlkönig by Franz Schubert

Der Erlkönig (The Elf King) is now the second piece I have discussed by composer Franz Schubert. It’s, therefore, a little odd that, for most of my formal education, I was not a fan of his work. It wasn’t that I disliked Schubert’s music. In fact, I found some of it to be quite beautiful- too beautiful. I just could not see how his pretty ditties for piano and voice could ever compare the the grandeur of Mozart’s operas, the drama of Beethoven’s symphonies, the technical achievement of Bach’s fugues.

To put it frankly, I was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, those of you who do not like Schubert, unless he, with malice of forethought, murdered your dog, are also wrong.

Sir Wrong Wrongley of the Wrongorford Wrongleys

Schubert was an early Romantic composer of art songs. Beethoven, as we know from previous entries, was in very large part responsible for the shift from the Classical to the Romantic period. However, though Beethoven may have fathered German Romantic composition, it was Schubert who perfected it. The Sturm und Drang (storm and drive, aka emotional tides and upheaval) of Beethoven’s symphonies were limited by adherence to compositional forms. Such is not the case for Schubert, partially due to his choice to explore a “lower” form of music, the art song, and partially because he believed the emotion of the piece should dictate its form, not vice-verse.

While Gratchen am Spinnrade is a favorite of mine, it is not Schubert’s crowning achievement. He is forever held in high regard in the annals of music history for two compositions: the sprawling, morose, hour-long Winterreise and the quick snack of adrenaline that is Der Erlkönig. Today we discuss the latter.

Before we watch the video, let’s look at the lyrics. Since this song is all plot, we need to understand what is going on.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Beautiful games I play with you;
many a colourful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”

“My father, my father, and heareth you not,
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

What on Earth is that about?! There’s a kid and his dad and an elf king, and then there was touching… possibly BAD touching… And then the kid DIES?! That’s some heavy stuff! Like Gretchen am Spinnrade, this piece is also an adaptation of the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His poetry was very popular among composers during the Romantic period. It had MEAT in it- love, death, drama, despair, anger. How can we possibly shove all of this plot and emotion into a four minute song?

The piece starts with the piano, frantically pounding out triplets, mimicking the sound of a horse’s hoof beats. This motif will continue throughout the whole piece, adding tension and coloring the scene. But while the piano is quite impressive in this piece, it is the vocalist that takes center stage.

This rendition is performed by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The composition is quite a tall order, requiring the vocalist to perform as narrator, child, father, and elf king, all very different in tone and character.

Dieskau begins the piece as narrator, setting the scene. As narrator, he has the opportunity to discuss the action in the third person, as an impartial observer. We see him sing with gravity and purpose but very little emotional investment. He is just the narrator, telling us of the action.

Then, at 0:55, his demeanor changes. The change is slight, and you might not catch it at first. His voice lowers, his eyebrows lower. He is the father now, singing to his scared child. At 1:05, the child answers, his eyes unfocused, his voice and brow high, innocent, confused, curious, and afraid. “Father, do you not see the Elf King?” The father comforts the child at 1:20. “My son, it is a streak of fog.”

At 1:28, a sweet melody lilts into the mix. This is our Elf King. He is charming and saccharine, beckoning to the boy. His is a siren song, a happy and soft ditty in stark contrast to the fear and tension of the scene. The effect is eerie, especially with Dieskau’s unblinking smile.

So the story continues, vaulting us from character to character. Look back at the lyrics and try to pick out each individual part. The Elf King is characterized by a fey tone, sung in a high, enticing register, his face merry and disconcerting. The father is characterized by his low, soothing voice and brow furrowed with concern. The child launches further and further into confusion and fear, eyes wild, practically shrieking by the end. Listen for those changes. Look for those changes.

At 3:00, the Elf King takes on a more sinister mien. His song isn’t as pretty as it was before, and there is sense that this creature is a predator ready to pounce. And pounce he does, touching the boy, hurting him.

The boy cries at 3:09, “My father, my father! He’s touching me now! The Elf King has hurt me!”

The piano and the narrator take on a fever pitch, rushing home as quickly as possible. But with a swift climb up the piano keys, the boy and his father arrive home, the horses slowing to a stop, just in time for the narrator to tell us what we already know to be true: “In his arms, the child was dead.”

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The John Williams of It All

When asked to think about modern classical music, we often recall film scores as opposed to string quartets. In some ways, this is a great thing. We are exposed to music of all varieties on a constant basis. But when we think of film composers, I doubt many of us could name more than two or three. Quick poll: who is your favorite modern film composer?

How many of you said John Williams? (Some of you may have said Danny Elfman…)

danny elfman

Of course you did. He’s only responsible for every awesome thing that’s been written in the last thirty years, right? Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T., Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter- these are just a few of the credits on his astounding resume. And I can tell you, without a doubt, that his themes are some of the most memorable moments in music history. Like this one:

Or how about this one:

Seriously, this body of work amazing, right? Well… yes and no. I do think that John Williams has an amazing output of work, and I think that his themes are beyond reproach… for the most part. However, there is something about John Williams’ music that has been nagging at me that I feel must be addressed. Let’s listen to the Harry Potter theme, one of my personal favorites.

This is Hedwig’s theme. With just the right amount of mystical extended tonality, those unexpected accidentals (slightly too high or too low sounding notes) really give the piece a sense of bobbing through the air. It’s just a beautiful composition. But then I decided to look up my old friend Tchaikovsky, and what did I hear?

Wow, those two videos sound very similar at the beginning, don’t they? Add a couple of 16th notes in between the longer notes or Swan lake, and you’ve got yourself a movie theme. And speaking of Harry Potter, there is this awesome moment:

At about the 1:00 minute mark, things get really good. The chess match begins, and the music suddenly takes on an ominous, war-like tone. So what’s the problem? Well, I guess Gustav Holst is the problem.

At first the similarities are more subtle. Similar instrumentation, but that could be an accident, right? Well, at 4:15 Holst’s Mars picks up the pace and hits an amazing fever pitch, which sounds very much like the intense music of the chess match at 3:30. Of course, there are differences. Holst’s only uses one note for his melody while Williams’ utilizes a bit more of the scale, but the rhythmic similarity is pretty uncanny. Once again, Williams succeeds in fooling us by adding a few 16th notes. In fact, if you listen closely, underneath the rhythmic theme playing, the ACTUAL opening theme from Mars plays underneath it.

Minority Report is one of my favorite sci-fi movies, and John Williams’ haunting score is a perfect backdrop for this heartbreaking story about redemption.

Upon further inspection, we find that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony might not be an exact twin but certainly an older sibling- a wiser, more pensive soul.

There are dozens and dozens of similarities between John Williams’ work and other classical composers. (Many of them are Star Wars, but I decided to talk about a few of the less documented ones.)

So, this is where we arrive at the dilemma. Does borrowing ideas from other composers make John Williams any less of a genius? If we listen to film scores that are inspired by famous classical pieces, could we possibly develop an ear and taste for it? Could listening to John Williams make us like audiences like Tchaikovsky more, even if they don’t know why? Frankly,I like him less because of these inspirations, and here’s why. However, that exact same video could be used to defend John Williams’ compositions.

It’s not that I hate John Williams or his music. It’s just that there are so many other incredible composers out there who don’t get nearly as much credit.

Many people assume John Williams wrote the score for The Lord of the Rings, but it was, in fact, Howard Shore, the same composer as The Fly. Talk about versatility! Or we could give a hand to composer Michael Giacchino, who has done so much good work. Seriously. So much. Yet, nobody seems to know his name.

I’d like to take just a moment to talk about one of my favorite film composers, and he’s likely to be of whom you’ve never heard. His name is Joe Hisaishi, and his music is some of the most glorious, subtle work in all of cinema.

Voyager, Music for the Stars

While watching reruns of the X-Files, I was reminded of the Voyager mission launched in 1977. I looked into the progress of Voyager 1 and 2 on the NASA page. In 1993, Voyagers 1 and 2 were determined to be on the outer edge of our solar system, losing many of their mapping capabilities in the process; however, both crafts still possess limited capabilities for mapping and transmitting, and scientists believe they will be able to continue sending us invaluable information about the space that surrounds us for decades to come.

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Voyager 1

Why am I talking about the Voyager mission on a blog about classical music? Voyager 1 and 2 serve another purpose beyond just that of mapping our galaxy. In the incredible event that one of the crafts is intercepted by an intelligent alien life form, they will find a golden disc containing photos, artwork, sound bytes of language and nature, and 90 minutes of musical selections, which are meant to represent all of Earth and its peoples. These pieces were picked by Carl Sagan and his associates at Cornell University.

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Golden Disc

The disc contains Javanese Gamelan music of Indonesia, Aboriginal songs from Australia, Peruvian pipes, Native American chants, and so much more.

(Javanese Gamelan is an ensemble playing traditional music on the traditional instruments of Indonesia. There are different types of Gamelan, reflecting different cultures and musical tastes.)

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Javanese Gamelan: Indonesia:: Symphony Orchestra: Europe and America

Other countries that contribute music include China, Japan, Senegal, New Guinea, Mexico, Zaire, Bulgaria, and India. The fount of musical information contained in these 90 minutes is staggering, but of course, being Americans, there is a slight bias toward Western music.

Here are some of the classical Western pieces, which are circulating through space as we speak: J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (1st movement); J.S. Bach, Partita No. 3 for Violin; W.A. Mozart, The Magic Flute (Queen of the Night aria); Igor Stravinsky, the Rite of Spring; J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C No. 1; Ludwig van Beethoven, Fifth Symphony (1st movement); and Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14.

Anyone else notice a bit of a preference? Mr. Bach gets 3 separate entries on a list, which has the purpose of representing all music of all Earth for all time. Why? My guess is that many musicologists agree that good ole Johann composed the most sophisticated music ever known to man. That’s right, we hit our musical peak in the 1600’s.

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It’s all Downhill from There

(Interesting observation: Those musicologists that do not view Bach as the greatest composer often point to Beethoven or Stravinsky instead, both of whom are also included on the disc.)

Mixed in among these pieces, which represent the peaks of each culture’s musical achievement as we understand it, we also find some more familiar stuff mixed in, like rockin’ Chuck Berry and some sultry Louis Armstrong.

I am not going to discuss any one piece of music today. Instead, I am going to ask you to do some homework. This is a playlist of the music included on the Voyager crafts. Do you think these pieces are an accurate depiction of music on Earth? Are there pieces you loved that you didn’t think you would? Are there other types of music that should have been included or other composers? Did they pick the right pieces from the composers and countries that they did include? Is there a piece from the disc you would like me to discuss? (I have had some education in world music.) Finally, if you were an intelligent alien hearing this package of music for the first time, what might be your thoughts about Earth?

Click Here for the full Playlist on Youtube

You can find a list of the pieces and where each originates at this website. http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/music.html

Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber

When I was about twelve years old, my older brother, who, being two and a half years older than me, was infinitely more cultured and awe-inspiring, advised me to listen to a particular piece of classical music called “Adagio for Strings.” While my parents were very musically talented, we were raised much more in the strain of Broadway hits than instrumental classical compositions. After all, what is the point of listening to music with no words? As far as I know, “Adagio for Strings” is the first piece of classical music I listened to knowingly and without the visual aid of films like Fantasia. I can still see myself, sequestered in my room, curled up on the floor next to my bed with my head resting on my knees as I closed my eyes and let the sound of violins, violas, and cellos wash over me. It sounded like pouring rain, roaring fire, soaring winds, and it scoured me. Twelve year old Bethany cried the first time she heard “Adagio for Strings.” She sat in her room, alone, and sobbed as nameless emotions filled her eyes. There was something intangible and bleak in this music, something so utterly real that she had never experienced before, and it was frightening and oh so beautiful. This music SAID something, and to this day, I am not sure I understand what it is trying to tell me because each time I hear it, I find something new to hold onto, a small resolution of a chord, or a subtle viola underscoring the violins, and I find a new meaning in it. I truly believe that “Adagio for Strings” changed the course of my life and is one of the pieces that molded me into the musician I am today. So, without any further ado, here is “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber.

For those of you who are movie buffs, you might recognize this piece right away as it was used to great effect in Platoon. However, I am going to ask you to please not think about that iconic scene and let the music paint something else for you instead. What are the emotions in this piece? Do you hear devastation, longing, loss, joy, pain, fear, love? Do you see images? Scenes? Do you see people or places?

Like the Ligeti we discussed before, this piece has a feeling of timelessness, of moving and swaying and surging without discernible beats. Of course, Barber did this on purpose by writing the piece in many different time signatures. This means he constantly changed where the downbeat fell. What is a downbeat? It is the first, most prominent, often loudest, beat in a rhythm. In 4/4 time, in which most Western music is written, the beats go like this: strongest, weak, strong, weak. The strongest beat, the first one, is the downbeat. For example, if we sing “Pop Goes the Weasel,” we will put the most emphasis on these words: ALL around the MULberry bush, the MONkey chased to WEAsel. “All” and “Mon” from “Monkey” are the downbeats.

In this piece, Barber chose to mask that downbeat by changing it every time. Instead of having the downbeat every 4 beats, he would change it to every 3 or every 5, masking where one line ended and the next began. This approach to composition is a dead giveaway that Barber is a Contemporary composer. Indeed, this piece was composed in 1936, a good 200 years after the great compositions of Mozart and Beethoven.

We have already covered one Contemporary composer on this blog, Georgy Ligeti, but Samuel Barber’s masterpiece differs in one very big way: he wrote texturally and melodically. While Ligeti was much more concerned about composing flowing, hauntingly beautiful harmonies, there was no melody, nothing you could hum along to. Barber’s Adagio, on the other hand, is something where you can pick out a discernible line as the melody of the piece, usually played by the highest instrument, the violins. This gives us something we can grasp. We hold onto that violin line as it weaves us through a dynamic, changing texture of sound and color. We get the feeling that the texture only changes as the violins react to it. At 1:40, the violas pick up the melody for a moment, echoing in their low, sorrowful voice, the melody of the violins, and for a few sweet moments, they play together, a tender duet. The texture thins again, and this time, it is the violas that have the melody. They rise and fall, and blend back again with the violins, echoing, singing to one another, fall back again, as if shy. Building, receding, building, receding- like a wave crashing into a mountain, desperately clawing for the summit.

At 5:00, the violins pick up the melody again, and this time they are more powerful, more sure. The violas climb. The cellos climb. There is a sense of urgency now, and the strings rise to a glorious fever pitch as they reach the top of the mountain. Up until now, the whole piece piece has been in a minor (AKA sad) key, but suddenly, a glorious major chord sweeps across a devastatingly beautiful sun. It can only be the sound of elation, of God, of the otherworldly beauty of our own world.

We begin the slow descent, and we hear the same melody that so subtly built at the beginning of the piece, but it feels different now. Has the music changed, or have we?

Dogs, Nuns, Muppets, and the Hearing Impaired

When I was little, I was a big fan of Beethoven. Most kids are, I think, even if they don’t know it.

What’s not to love about a drooling St. Bernard with a penchant for disaster?

No, no, no. Not THAT Beethoven. I’m talking about the real thing. Ludwig van Beethoven, father of the Romantic era of classical music. Today we are going to talk about one of the most significant pieces in the history of music. Are you excited? Well, you’d better get excited because this is music you will almost certainly recognize. If you were proud that you knew about Figaro from Barber of Seville, you will be ecstatic to learn that you can hum the entire melody to this piece. That’s right- you are a classical music genius, and you didn’t even know it.

I certainly didn’t know it when I was six years old and plunking out this little ditty on my aunt and uncle’s incredibly out of tune piano.

Fun fact: This is a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 6. It is also a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 24.

Did you recognize that tune? It’s pretty likely that you’ve heard it at some point in your life, even if you’ve never tuned in to the classical station. This piece has been covered over and over again by performers ranging from Pink all the way to the Muppets.

With each cover, the piece has evolved significantly and occasionally has almost nothing in common with the original source material. (Whether or not I think this is a good thing is up for discussion.) Alas, unfortunately, we are not here to talk about Pink and the Muppets. This is a classical music blog, and we are going to figure out where this all started. We are going back to the year 1824 to find the source of this musical phenomenon.

It all started with a man furiously scribbling away at his piano. This man, aside from his wild hair, looked like most other people at the time, but he was extraordinary. Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably one of the greatest (and some musical historians say THE greatest) composers of all time, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw him working. He would rest his head against his piano, bang on some keys, and angrily scratch out and rewrite music. While Mozart’s scores were famously clean and beautiful, Beethoven’s were symptomatic of his inner turmoil, heavily laden with frustrated ink. He was on the verge of something great: simple, beautiful, revolutionary. He was composing his ninth, and last, symphony.

This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that, at this point in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven was legally deaf. This is why he rested his head on the piano as he composed. Beethoven could not hear the notes, instead feeling for pleasing vibrations from the instrument. In this scene from Immortal Beloved, we can see Beethoven (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman) playing another of his masterpieces, Moonlight Sonata.

By the time Beethoven completed his ninth symphony, he was widely regarded as a has-been. It was common knowledge by then that he was deaf, and a deaf composer was practically worthless. Late in life, Beethoven was known for his bitter disposition and abusive attitude. In fact, his ward and nephew, Karl, attempted suicide under his care. This made it all the more surprising when Beethoven debuted the Ninth Symphony on May 7th, 1824 in Vienna with a tour de force finale featuring an excerpt from the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller.

Finally we arrive at the music itself, and we will touch on the first two movements and end with a deeper discussion of the fourth choral movement.

First of all… Wow! Those first chords in the opening movement are so powerful! They are indicative of Beethoven’s style, far removed from the lovely melodies of previous classical composers like Haydn and Mozart. I think one of the biggest differences between Mozart and Beethoven is their treatment of melody, or lack thereof. Mozart, like other composers at the time and most since, believed that harmony was intended to accompany the melody (usually the highest voice or instrument). Beethoven wrote harmonically, meaning that all of the notes were of equal importance, not just the high ones. This style makes for more dynamic and emotionally gripping contrasts. This style would pave the way for later composers like Brahms, Strauss, and even Berlioz. In fact, Ligety’s style would not be possible without Beethoven’s macroscopic view of music, in which the sound as a whole is far more important than any one voice or instrument.

Hopefully, you have been listening to the piece this whole time and marveled at how wonderful the whole thing sounds. Everything is just so darn meaty! I am going to draw your attention to 10:30, in which we hear marked contrast between the agitated strings and the soft, lullaby of the woodwinds. This is a style Beethoven often utilizes (most evident in his Fifth Symphony). He loved to write music that got louder and louder, more and more dramatic, and contrast suddenly with a soft folk tune played by a single voice, evidence of his classical heritage. This is a perfect example of his struggle to exist in two different worlds, the Classical and the Romantic, which he was pioneering. This results in a feeling of mixed emotions. Whether or not Beethoven himself was bipolar, his music certainly was. In music and literature, this is often referred to as Sturm und Drang, meaning Storm and Drive, implying a freedom to express inner turmoil in the form of extreme emotional contrast.

At 12:00 minutes, we return to the opening theme (this is called a recapitulation, just like in the Bach piece we talked about before), but it sounds a little bit different this time. Does it sound happier? Yes! Good catch! While the beginning of the piece was stormy and angry, this return has a lighter feeling and a more hopeful attitude. Some of this is caused by a change in instrumentation, with the woodwinds playing a bigger part, weaving in and out of the texture. More importantly, we have switched from major to minor. (In laymen’s terms, we have switched from sad to happy.) Still, we end exactly the way we began, minor and angry, leading us into the next movement.

The second movement begins at 16:05, a perfect continuation of the first movement, with the strings quickly departing to explore a jaunty dance tune. While I won’t discuss this movement in too much detail, it is interesting to note his use of timpani, the big drum. In Classical music, this instrument was used quite sparingly, often relegated to the sound of thunder during an opera. Beethoven uses its forceful timbre to punctuate the light and playful feel of the rest of the instruments, giving the movement more depth.

At 41:00, we begin the fourth and most important movement of this immense classical feat. Notice that the strings echo a bit of that stormy sound we heard in the first movement, but it is just that, an echo, not a full realization. They then echo the second and third movements before moving into a motif we know very well indeed. At 43:30, we catch a glimpse of Ode to Joy, a tantalizing taste of rapture.

The cellos and basses come in at 44:00, and for the first time, we finally hear the melody, which they softly, almost inaudibly, play, forcing us to lean in and listen. It’s like Beethoven is whispering to us, telling us some sweet something, and each time we feel the instruments are finally going to let loose and explode in joy, they pull back, maddeningly. The tension of this quiet happiness just about drives us to the brink until, at 46:00, the self conscious whisper ends, and the orchestra begins to play in earnest. We begin to think, “So this is what joy sounds like…”

At 47:20, the orchestra pulls back again, for just a moment, and shows a little of the sturm und drang we heard in the first two sections, followed by a lone male voice, a soloist, reciting the poetry by Friedrich Schiller. You can read a lovely but slightly inaccurate translation of the words here. Each soloist comes in turn, adding to a rich vocal texture and bringing more meaning to the lyrics.

The orchestra moves in to accompany them, and the tune is jaunty, happy. The male soloists sing of brotherhood and victory and racing toward their goals. At this, the orchestra picks back up and begins to sprint toward the finish. At 54:30, the race ends, and the true magic begins. The poetry changes, reveling in the idea of a loving father looking down from a canopy of stars. I will leave you here for a while and let you listen, for the ending of this work needs no explanation…

Have you finished? Good. Now you can read on. The last ten minutes of this work features dynamic textural contrasts, especially those contrasts between chorus and soloist. It also features rapid key changes, often shifting into minor, which now, instead of stormy and depressed, sounds reverent and calm, and swelling into large and joyous major sections. This piece builds and builds, and halfway through the fourth movement, we finally get our release. God takes on many forms in this last section, loving father, almighty creator, worshiped and adored alike, and we hear all of this.

This piece was the first symphony ever to include chorus. That is why it is often referred to as the “Choral Symphony.” I think most of the world agrees with me when I say that it was a good move on Beethoven’s part. A piece that better depicts true and absolute joy, rapture, may not, in fact, exist. This is it. This is the “Ode to Joy.”

This piece is one of the most influential things ever composed and continues to influence every aspect of music, whether we consciously realize it or not. As the culture has evolved, so too has the music, and sometimes, it is nigh unrecognizable. Now, for a bit of fun contrast, here is what I consider to be complete opposite of Beethoven’s work. Same song, entirely different interpretation…

Does this interpretation do the piece justice? Has it lost its classical roots? Is it respectful to the source material? Would Beethoven have approved? Does it add some new flavor, which enhances the message? I guess that’s up to you.

Bethany and the Wolf

First of all, I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to post. Life occasionally has a tendency of interrupting the writing process. When I came back to the idea of picking up the blog again, I was not sure what piece I could possibly use to get back into the groove of things. What classical pieces have been rolling around in my head? What do I need from classical music right now? Art is an incredibly volatile and changeable thing, creating different moods and emotions while simultaneously being created by our moods and emotions. The music changes us, and our perceptions change the way we hear the music. Do I need something relaxing or high energy? Am I looking for high classical Mozart stuff or dadaist French fluff pieces? Well, I tried my hardest to come with the perfect answer: none of the above. I have chosen a piece that is instructional, interesting, and cerebral. It is also playful and young, exciting the inner child in us all and inviting us to flights of fancy. For my grand return to Classical Music for Beginners, I will discuss Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.

This piece is remarkable for many reasons. For those of you who have never heard it, you might be taken aback by the fact that the whole thing is narrated. Prokofiev actually wrote the narration along with the music, and conductors will often narrate the piece while directing the orchestra in a live performance. This particular narration, however, was recorded by the incomparable Boris Karloff.

This piece was written for the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow as an attempt to get children more interested classical music, and it premiered in 1936, smack dab in the middle of the contemporary era. While it was not received to fanfares and unending applause during its premiere performance, it has since become a staple in classical repertoire, not only for children, but for adults as well.

At the beginning of the recording, the narrator informs us that certain animals and characters will be played by specific instruments or groups of instruments. For example, the duck (in a rather onomatopoeic manner) is played by the oboe, an instrument famous for its squeaky timbre or voice. Peter, the main character in the story is played by a string quartet (violin I, violin II, viola, and bass). This mirrors the methods of a traditional symphony as the melodies and main themes of symphonies are usually given to the strings. However, the tradition of giving every character its own special instrument was a relatively new one. Russian composers are known for their unique and creative instrumentation (using the right instrument for the right job), and this piece marks one of the greatest achievements in instrumentation and its uses in storytelling.

The piece starts out very simply with the characters and their own separate themes. First we hear Peter walking down the road to his string quartet, and then the bird flute is introduced, playing out his entire theme. What occurs next is remarkable and subtle. Peter’s theme slows down as he stops to admire and play with the bird, and the bird’s flute song intermingles with Peters at 4:10, both of them together creating an entirely new song, the song of Peter and the bird.

The duck enters at about 5:00, and we hear it join Peter and the bird, with little flits of the flute and a gentle, reassuring melody from the strings. It is apparent they are all friends. The duck and bird then argue and play, one in the water and one on the ground. We hear their little webbed feet skip across the water and ground. So the story continues, with the introduction of the cat marking the trading off of voices instead of intermingling. The cat blats at the bird and the bird answers angrily as they play out hunter and hunted.

At 11:15, the wolf appears in all of its French horn glory. This is the only brass instrument used to portray a character in the whole piece. Compared to the lightness of the strings and playful attitude of the woodwinds (duck, bird, cat, and grandfather), this instrument seems entirely out of place. The wolf quickly devours the duck. At 13:00 minutes, we hear the duck’s theme played again, but with a mournful background of strings, like a eulogy.

Sad Duck Is Sad

At 18:00, following the trapping of the wolf with a noose around its tail, we hear some of Prokofiev’s signature dissonance, which has been so absent from the rest of the piece. The wolf struggles to survive, completely at odds with all of our other heroes, blaring and grating against their joyous harmonies.

At 19:30, the hunters appear, and their theme is quite different from the others in that it involves more than one set of instruments. They are portrayed with woodwinds (signaling to the listener that they are good men) and the rumbling timpani of gunfire (signifying that they are still dangerous and quite well-armed).

At about 22:00 minutes, we begin a joyful procession, which Peter, in all of his newfound glory, leads. He is now portrayed with triumphant brass instruments, like a march. The hunters follow with the wolf, still contrary as ever to the themes of the other characters. At 24:00 minutes, we hear the joyful march of a proud Peter at the line, “What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf?” He is portrayed with trumpets and snare drums; everyone is so proud of Peter.

And just in case this piece was getting a little bit too serious, we end on a joke.

Mmmm…. Duck.

I am not going to go into detail about the composer or compositional techniques. That would defeat the purpose. This is Peter and the Wolf; it is about playful instrumentation and education. It brings out the child in me, and I hope it does for you as well.

2013: A Ligeti Odyssey

If you weren’t in an ethereal, relaxed place before, you might be now. This is Lux Aeterna by Gyorgy Ligeti (like “lickety-split”), and it is a masterpiece of Contemporary music, pushing the boundaries further than they had been pushed before. For instance, I am sure you have noticed that most music has a beat, something to tap your foot to. Well, this piece, as you can hear, does not have a beat. There is no discernible rhythm. Ligeti wrote very difficult, complicated music to create this effortless effect. I am not going to go too much into specifics on this because 1) It is really boring and technical and 2) I am not a music scholar and thus find some of the theory hard to understand. Yes, she is fallible!

So I will write more about the “why” as opposed to the “how”. Why did Ligeti create music that sounded like this? Why is there no evident rhythm or beat? Why does the piece give me a feeling of calm mixed with unease?

The Lux Aeterna is taken from the Catholic Reqiuem mass. (The Mozart Requiem we discussed also had a Lux Aeterna movement, which was composed posthumously.) Roughly translated, it means:

Lux Aeterna, luceat , eis, Domine,
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord,
With the Saints in eternity,
Because you are good.
Grant eternal rest unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.

Some of you may know the term Gregorian chant, and you may have a vague image in your mind of old guys in robes singing simple music that echoes a lot. Honestly, that pretty much does some up Gregorian chant. Back when writing music down was still a new and scary idea, Pope Gregory decided to have all of the sacred music consolidated, leading to a mass influx of chants from all over Europe. These were then taught in cathedral all over, and soon everyone in the Catholic church knew these chants and could sing them accurately. It helped that the music was simple, and there was nothing to cloud understanding, like harmony or tricky rhythm. Believe it or not, Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum has strong ties to its Gregorian heritage. On an odyssey into history we go!

This is the Gregorian chant Lux Aeterna. Notice that it is just one melody, no accompaniment, no harmony. One simple, straight tone (no vibrato) melody. How on earth did THIS simple melody become that, frankly, WEIRD piece of music at the top. Well, it took about 1000 years to get there. We should be able to zip through this pretty quickly, though. Let’s go straight on to sacred music of the Renaissance.

This is Josquin de Prez’s Ave Maria, a sacred canon. Of course, one of the first things you will (hopefully) notice is that all of the voice parts are singing different words at different times. You then might notice that they are actually copying each other but coming in later or earlier than each other. (This is sort of like an early fugue, isn’t it?) The music here takes precedence over the words, which are often muddled by the different singers all singing something different and by the melisma (long vocal passage on one syllable). This is called canon, and it is very indicative of the Renaissance (pre-Palestrina). It is the combination of these two very early styles of composition that give us the texture we find in Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum. Combined with a modern harmonic and melodic sensibility (ie- purposefully none whatsoever), Ligeti managed to make something sound familiar and comforting while simultaneously strange and foreign.

Let’s look at that Gregorian chant again. It’s spare and beautiful in its own succinct, soft-spoken way. Now, imagine slowing it WAY down- I mean, painfully slow. Would that not be the dullest piece of music ever? Not if you’re Ligeti. He wanted that simplicity of line, and it needed to feel like it would go on forever, hence the title “Eternal Light.” The best way to do that, he thought was to do away with traditional harmony. Each section of the 16, yes 16!, section choir would have their own specific melody, which operated quite independently from the rest of the group. These were used to create cluster chords (a whole lot of notes really close together on the piano and played at the same time), which should sound horrible (and sometimes it does), but in this case, the music is beautiful and haunting.

Ah, but then comes the tricky part. This piece is meant to be textural. The parts in the choir must operate independently and still create a seamless and ever flowing texture. Here we find evolved remnants of the canon. Almost never, except on very important words in the piece, do the voices enter at the same time, and they even show some slight mimicry of other voice parts. The texture, however, is so deep and spellbinding that it is incredibly difficult to hear similar beat patterns or note repetitions. This is absolutely on purpose. In order to accomplish this, Ligeti wrote music that was not technically what we would call “accurate.” He would write too many beats for one voice and not enough for another. The choir parts had very specific entrances in the piece, but very little way to actually figure them out. They had to FEEL those entrances. The purposefully inaccurate music leads to the creation of a living organism as the choir is forced, all at once, to completely ignore each other and focus on their own line AND feel their entrances within the texture of the sound. There is no clear harmony. There is no clear melody. There is only the sound and the lack of it.

What colors do we hear? When is the texture rich? When is it light? Does the texture paint the words (like that held high note in the soprano part on the word luceat or “shine”)?

Why is it cool to know about Gyorgy Ligeti? Because he is one of the most influential composers in the history of cinema. In1968, Stanley Kubrick released the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie featured lots of famous classical pieces such as the Blue Danube Waltz and Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Johann and Richard Strauss, respectively. When he got to the sections that were, well, weird, he needed music to capture that essence, and he found it in Gyorgy Ligeti’s music. Featured in the film are Ligeti’s compositions Lux Aeterna, Atmospheres, Requiem, and Aventures. They had that perfect otherworldly quality that Kubrick was looking for.

There was only one problem. Kubrick never actually asked Ligeti for permission to use his music. He had no idea that his music was featured in the film until he started to receive congratulations for it. Moreover, Kubrik had digitally altered the music as well! Gyorgy Ligeti took Stanley Kubrick to court and settled for an indeterminate amount of money. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or, at least, a financially viable partnership. Since then, Ligeti allowed use of his music to Kubrik for the films The Shining and Eyes Wide shut. (However, Gyorgy Ligeti remains uncredited in most of Stanley Kubrik’s films.)