Move Over Inception, It’s Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz

Christopher Nolan aint got nothin’ on Hector Berlioz. Symphonie Fantastique is semi-autobiographical symphony that features a young artist who has fallen in love with a woman who does not love him in return. In a fit of depression, he overdoses on opium, probably hoping to kill himself. The opium does not, in fact, kill him, but sends him on wild trip in which he thinks he has killed his lover and is sent to the scaffold for it. Oh, but it gets better. You see, a bad trip doesn’t end when you die. The poor, young artist then suffers through his own funeral, which has become a sick romp of a witches’ sabbath. For the purpose of brevity, we will only really discuss the movements that cover the main plot. Those are movements 1, 4, and 5. The others are lovely as well, and certainly give them a listen if you like what we cover on this post.

Ah, that first movement is glorious, isn’t it? Just lovely music. Sweet, lilting melodies accompanied by complex but effortless sounding harmonies- yes, this is what music is about. This movement is sort of an introduction. We get a glimpse inside the hapless mind of the young, tormented artist. In a dreamlike state, he muses at his own beautiful imaginings. And then, he sees her, a glorious creature who is the epitome of all he has been searching for. He knows instantly that she is the love of his life, and at 6:05, we hear the introduction of what Berlioz referred to as the idee fixe. Translated from French, this means “fixed idea”. The thought of this woman calls to mind a little melody, one which he believes to emulate her sweetness, her shyness, her beauty. While the idee fixe does refer to the music, as in a fixed idea of the way the woman sounds in music, it might also refer to the fact that she has become fixed in his mind, an obsession.

Then returns the orchestra in full force, and the artist’s thoughts seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Is it just passion that we hear? Are there hints of anger, of jealousy? These feelings culminate in a driving rhythm and ascending (going up) melody starting at 8:15. And there’s that idee fixe again, but it is not so sweet this time, not nearly as happy. Perhaps the thought of the lady is not quite so simple as it once was. But there is still love as the storm clouds give way once again to a dreamy sweetness (undercut by the bass, which seems intent on warning us of the unhappiness to come). And now we get into some good meat. Parts of the following section are reminiscent of Beethoven, full of passionate angsty goodness. And at 11:00 minutes, there is that darn bass again, a portent rumbling beneath the surface as a little melody bubbles up into a joyous frenzy. The movement closes with a slow, thoughtful, possibly mournful rendition of the first few seconds of the idee fixe at about 15:15.

Enough with the sweetness! Let’s fast forward to the fourth movement. At about 38:30, we can find the fourth movement. And already, things aren’t looking good for our poor hero. He has fallen into a deep sleep from the opium, and now he dreams of his own execution. Not only is he being executed, but he watches on as it happens, existing in both places simultaneously as is only possible in dreams. Unfortunately, neither of those are places anyone wants to be, but the poor, poor writer simply cannot wake up. We can hear a solemn, steady march rhythm with dark overtones as he makes his way to the scaffold, a guillotine awaiting him. The bassoons (low, squeaky instruments) might portray the whispers of the townsfolk. The joyful blatting of the trumpets might be the rejoicing of the townsfolk. They cheer as the murderer marches to his death. That this movement is filled with such happy, joyful music is purposeful irony, and putting yourself in the hero’s shoes, it is a stark and painful contrast to his own emotions. As the listeners, it is our job to be horrified as he certainly is to hear the crowds cheering and even jeering. It might be funny if it wasn’t so awful.

We hear a quick rumbling of the drums at around 40:45. I think this is meant to be the hero ascending the steps to the scaffold. Notice how the orchestra joyously interrupts the drums, their excitement bordering on sheer frenzy. At 41:30, we hear a quick descending line. Did you catch it? Perhaps this is the sound of the poor hero laying his head down on the rough wood of the guillotine. The sound of horror follows, terror, panic. And then, out of the cacophony comes a sweet, innocent melody: the idee fixe. As he waits for cold, sharp death, the thought of his love flits through his mind, but the blade cuts it short. As his head rolls from his body into the basket below, the crowd cheers, ending the movement.

Whew! This is getting heavy. Here’s a picture of a kitten:


Of course, everyone knows that if you die in a dream (and are extremely sedated), then you go to the frightening land of the subconscious. And as Joseph Gordon Levitt will tell you, “There’s nothing down there!”

Pictured Above: Nothing

Well, not according to Berlioz. If you die in Berlioz’s dream, you go somewhere far worse than the dream world. You are transported to a horror fantasy starring witches, demons, and devils. And they are all here to celebrate you, singing and dancing with joy at your funeral.

At 43:20, we begin the 5th movement. The strings play ominously, slowly. There is a stillness, but not the good kind. I am reminded of an empty cemetery. Creepiness lurks around the dark edges of the music. Then  at 45:00, we hear it. The clarinet picks up a dancing jig, a horribly familiar dancing jig. It is interrupted by a roar from the orchestra. Could it be the arrival of the witches, demons, et al? And there it is again, that comic, taunting melody in the clarinet. It is the idee fixe, but it is a perversion, hopping about like a drunken satyr. This return of the idee fixe marks the arrival of the most important guest; it is his love. She has come to dance at his grave as well, and she has warped the sound of his love for her into something grotesque, a cruel joke.

Now the celebration can begin! The party guests begin to celebrate as the death toll rings for the hero. Now begins the Dies Irae (a Gregorian chant for the dead), a somber and hateful Dies Irae, punctuated with the sound of twirling witches in the strings. Then the dance begins in earnest, a jaunty tune, filled with flippant ornamentation (fluttering sounds).  At 51:35, the Dies Irae returns, but it is low and quiet, almost below the audible, and in trounce the witches in a mad celebration, the dance in full swing, joining with the somber Dies Irae to create a joke of that as well. The death toll is not sacred for our hero; no, the witches have twisted that as well. His funeral is a romp for the monsters. The hero’s life was a joke, and his death was the punchline.

Dies Irae translation:


“Little” Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

So at last we arrive at the fugue, admittedly one of the more complicated forms of music out there. I mean, a fugue is basically 2-4 voices, each doing different things but playing all at once. That just sounds exhausting for the ears of the listener. That’s why I am going to try to ease you into the concept with this “little” fugue. I picked it for a couple of reasons. First, it is a very simple fugue, following pretty much every rule about how they should be written. There’s no funny business in this one. I won’t have to tell you, “I know Bach made a rule to never do A here and do B instead, but Bach did A here just to confuse you.” Second, it really is a cute little fugue. It’s simple, to the point, and very short.

Who’s a cute little fugue? You are! Yes, you are!

I am going to try to make this as painless as possible, but I do have to explain what the heck is going on. So, fugues are basically made up of three different sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. Lots of big words, but they boil down to pretty easy concepts.

Exposition: To expose something is to reveal it. So, the exposition of a fugue is the section where the composer reveals the themes. The exposition is the most structured part of the fugue with very strict rules.Every fugue starts with the introduction of the theme or subject, which is what the entire piece is based on. The second voice comes in next, echoing that theme while the first voice performs the second theme or countersubject. It is written specifically to go with the subject. Then, following suit come the third and finally the fourth voices. During this time, the first and second voices get a little more freedom to play, as long as they sound good with the subject and countersubject, of course.

I built a handy dandy little chart to help you understand what the heck I am talking about.

Fugue Exposition

And it’s color coded!

The soprano starts on a G (because, after all, this is a fugue in G). The altos come in next, and they enter on the V of G. Whoops. Did I lose you? Okay, let me break this down: G-A-B-C-D=1-2-3-4-5. It is widely accepted that the 1 and 5 sound really good together, so this is done a lot. Of course, things can’t be quite that simple in classical music, so we use Roman numerals instead of numbers. In this music, the G is I and the D is V. And yes, I do realize that it is weird that the letters only go up to G. I don’t know who voted on that years ago, but they are crazy. That’s just the way it is. It is common knowledge that musicians only know the first seven letters of the alphabet. 😛

Development: After the exposition comes the development. It is my favorite part of a fugue because it is the part that allows the composer the most freedom. This is where you hear fun, interesting way to twist and bend the subject and countersubject. Bach was an expert at finding amazing ways to develop his themes, such as writing them upside down.

Look at me, Mom! I’m composing!

No, no, no. The MUSIC was upside down, you silly people. Although Bach might have composed like that. Maybe that’s what made him such a genius. Anyway, the development section gives the composer a lot of opportunity for self expression. Composers utilize key changes (changing home base), rhythmic variation, changing the texture (like having the alto quiet to make the tenor line sound really strong), and lots of other devices. I know, it sounds kind of boring, but some interesting stuff happens in there. Trust me.

Recapitulation: Wow, that’s a big word. Stupid fancy words that mean something simple… The recapitulation is a return to the beginning. It means that we go back to the basics that we heard during the exposition. We are in the same key, and the parts are playing the same notes we heard at the beginning. Remember, recap is short for recapitulation. A recap on a TV show is when they replay what happened before. A music recapitulation is when we rehear what we heard before.

So, I was trying to figure out how I could explain fugues to you all if you don’t have the music in front of you, so I decided that you all needed a basic fugue that would allow you to read along. Ah! Inspiration! I’ve written tons of music in my time as a student, and some of it is pretty darn good, if I say so myself. About three years ago, I was asked to compose a fugue for a final project in music theory. I thought maybe I could use that to help explain a fugue as you see it happening. Hopefully, you all will like it.

Now, go back to that first video. Listen to it again. Can you separate out the parts? Can you tell when the exposition turns into the development? Can you hear key changes? Not to worry. If you can’t figure all of that stuff out right away, you are in good company. It takes us music majors years to get all of this stuff under our belts.

Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Fantasia…insky

So, first of all, this is NOT Stravinsky. That’s right. I tricked you. THIS is Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky. (I will give you a cookie if you can pronounce it correctly.) I posted this video to make a point. Most of us have, at some point, watched the Disney classic Fantasia. Some lucky ducks (like this girl) grew up on it, watching it over and over again. I have found over the years that this particular piece made quite an impression on many a young child. Some still claim to have nightmares from this sequence. The reason I posted this video on a post about Stravinsky is simple: I am NOT one of those people. Night on Bald Mountain never bothered me one bit. I thought the music was interesting, and the were visuals fun and stimulating. As a young child, I knew this was all fantasy and reveled in how well the music matched the dancing images onscreen. The Rite of Spring sequence, however, still haunts me.

Not sure which one the Rite of Spring is? That’s probably because the images have absolutely nothing to do with spring. No, the animators went with dinosaurs murdering each other instead. Why? Well, let’s take a look.

This is a short excerpt from the Rite of Spring in Fantasia. Remember it now? The music accompanies the images perfectly, but one must admit that for a sequence entitled Rite of Spring, there is not much to do with spring, but a whole lot to do with giant, ancient, angry lizards. “But Bethany,” you say, “dinosaurs are AWESOME!” Yes, they are. They totally are. And dinosaurs violently beating the hell out of each other is something I would usually enjoy (because I like gratuitous violence as much as the next person, often more so). So what is the problem?

The problem is the music itself. As a child, I found the music to be literally frightening. The jarring, repetitive rhythms; the confusing melodies; the tangled, garbled, incomprehensible harmonies- it was just too much. In fact, while the images of dinosaurs fighting and then slowly going extinct are probably the most disturbing, I was just as horrified by the shots of the lava bursting forth from a volcano. To this day, I find the sequence almost impossible to sit through because I associate it with confusion and fear.

Well, my musical tastes have changed a lot over the years, and I enjoy listening to a wide array of music, including wonderful composers like Stravinsky, Berg, and even Shoenberg on occasion. The Rite of Spring, however, still gives me the heebie jeebies. So what is it about this piece in particular. Why does one of the most celebrated pieces of classical music haunt me so intently? Before we go into further discussion on this, here is the whole piece so that you can hear it for yourself.

Did you know that this piece is actually a BALLET? Can you imagine? We are used to seeing ballets like The Nutcracker or maybe Swan Lake. Ballets are supposed to have lovely dancers making gorgeous lines with their bodies to beautiful music. Well, not in Russia in the 1910’s. Like all composers during this time, Stravinsky was searching for his own unique voice. His pieces differ greatly from one to the next. During his lifetime, Stravinsky made the leap from mostly tonal to almost complete atonality and back again, reverting to the style of Mozart and other classical composers. The Rite of Spring falls smack dab in the middle of his experimentation with atonality.

What exactly is atonality? Well, we know what tonal means, right? That’s music with a “home base.” So atonality is the opposite. The music does not follow specific patterns that our ears are used to hearing, and try as we might (and, trust me, your ears will try), we cannot find a solid Do to cling to. Unlike other composers of the time, Stravinsky wasn’t composing atonal music for the sake of creating atonal music (*cough cough* Webern *cough*). With this particular piece, he was trying to capture something primal, and of course, primal music did not follow the diatonic scale to which we are all accustomed.

Interestingly, while a majority of this piece operates in utter dissonance (unpleasant sound), separating the different lines of music actually reveals that there may be some kind of tonality after all, at least in some sections. For instance, from 3:30 to 4:30, you can hear various melodies float in and out of the texture. The piccolos play in a completely different key from the bassoons, who play in a completely different key from the horns. It’s like they are all performing their own little songs and don’t realize that they are supposed to be playing together. This is completely on purpose, and it is called polytonality. So, if tonal means there is a home base, then polytonal means that there are lots of home bases. Listen again; see if you can separate the parts. Some of those tunes are actually quite pretty. The texture, the dissonance with the other parts, that’s what makes it sound strange.

Well, that and the rhythm. Seriously! What is with that jolting, jerking rhythm? Considering this is a ballet, it must have to do with the story. The Rite of Spring is not exactly plot-driven but more episodic, if you will, like moving vignettes. It covers different pagan rites of spring, beginning with the relatively harmless and joyful and culminating a young girl’s sacrifice by dancing herself to death. Fun stuff! Considering the nature of the story and the characters involved, I understand the need for highly percussive and syncopated (against the beat) rhythm. It transports us and hopefully reaches to a place deep inside of us, a primal place where we still ache for blood sacrifices.

The Rite of Spring famously did just that. Paired with the innovative choreography of famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the Rite of Spring was practically a scandal. In fairness, a lot of that blame does fall on Nijinsky. You see, in ballet, the dancers’ feet are supposed to look like this:

Turned Out

This position of the feet is called “turned out,” and it’s very important for some reason. (I’m a singer, not a dancer. I can’t know EVERYTHING.) Nijinsky, following the theme of the primitive, decided that turned out feet were just too pretty for this particular ballet. He had his dancers turn their feet IN.

Take THAT Bob Fosse!

Feet out= good. Feet in= bad. Period. So it was in ballet until a fateful day in Paris in 1913, a day that lives in infamy for musicians and dancers alike. That was the day The Rite of Spring premiered.

[The audience] began, very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel this for some time. (White)

Whoa! All of this over one dumb little ballet? Surely people could conduct themselves with some kind of dignity during a performance of one of the most influential works in all of music, right? I mean, it’s not like there was a riot…

One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. The old Comtesse de Pourtales [stood] up in her box with her face aflame and her tiara awry [and she cried out], as she brandished her fan, “This is the first time in sixty years that anyone has dared to make fun of me!” Nijinsky, with Stravinsky behind him, stood on a chair in the wings, beating out the rhythm with his fists and ‘shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.’ (White)

The audience began yelling so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music. The noise of fighting brought everything to a tumultuous roar. Police arrived and began to eject rioters from the theater. Doctors were called in to care for injured men and women. At some point, the orchestra is believed to have stopped playing entirely. But the dancers danced on.

So I guess I am not alone in finding this music difficult, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t riot over it. A ballet attempting to access the primal seemed to accomplish its goal more than anyone could predict. Instead of watching the primitives dance on stage, the wealthy onlookers became primitives themselves. It’s hard to deny the power of music that can transform humans into animals.

The Rite of Spring doesn’t turn me into an animal. I become a five year old again, frightened of the unknown and hiding under blankets.

White, Eric Walter (1966). Stravinsky the Composer and his Works (Original edition). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Requiem Mass in D Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wow! I managed to go five whole days before talking about Mozart. That’s quite an accomplishment. What is there to say about good ole Wolfy? I love him. He’s the bees knees.

Today I will be talking about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterpiece, Requiem Mass in D minor. The video above is the opening, or Introit, to the Mass. Like the Palestrina piece we talked about last week, the movements are dictated by the Catholic mass. Int his instance, though, because it is a Requiem Mass, only some of the pieces from the regular mass are included. These are the Kyrie, the Sanctus et Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. The rest of the music is written for a specific occasion- in this case, usually a funeral.

Before we go into too much detail about the Requiem Mass, let’s talk a little about Mozart. I think most scholars would agree that Mozart is NOT the greatest composer of all time. He takes a back seat the greats like Bach and Stravinsky. However, Mozart is epitome of the true Classical composer. His music sounds deceptively simple, staying very tonal and adhering strongly to Classical forms. (Musical form is the structure of a piece of music. Most music we listen to these days is in strophic form. This means there are verses where the music is the same but the words change. We will talk more about form later on, probably for Beethoven.)

Mozart was an expert at musical structure. Classical forms were all about introducing a theme, taking the listener on a journey as far away from that theme as possible, and then finding an unexpected way to bring us back. Sounds easy, right? Well yeah, actually, it kind of is. Writing a basic Classical piece is not that difficult, but it won’t sound like Mozart, the master of invention and creativity.

You see, unlike other amazing composers like Beethoven, Handel, or Wagner, Mozart wrote his works entirely in his head. He didn’t compose so much as he simply acted as a channel. A channel to what, you ask? I have no idea. He was what is known as a prodigy (a person who had an inexplicable ability to hear, understand, mimic, and create music). The firs drafts of his scores (written musical works) were perfectly realized, no scratched out notes, no edits or mistakes.

Unfortunately, this amazing ability makes it darn hard to understand Mozart’s process. We can trace the evolution of Beethoven’s music from draft one to two, two to three, etc, and we can see some his greatest achievements came from a decision to scratch out one note and replace it with another. Well, because Mozart composed entirely in his head, we can’t trace his process. And let me tell you, as a musician, that’s maddening! (IE- Antonio Salieri in the film Amadeus.)


Pictured above: The Plot of Amadeus

Despite the difficulty his music presents to scholars and music theorists, Mozart is, for singers, a pleasure to perform. From what I understand, most instrumentalists agree. After all, Mozart was kind of a drama queen; he loved to be the center of attention and lived to put on a good show. So he wrote stuff that would make the performer, and by extension, his music, sound good. He was a genius when it came to a singer’s falk (fancy word for comfortable and optimal singing range). All right- have I gushed enough? Can you tell I love Mozart? Really, all you need to know is that Mozart’s music is simple, elegant, beautiful, and seemingly effortless.

My own personal experience with Mozart began with the San Diego Symphony’s performance of the Requiem Mass when I was 15. So that’s where we’re going to start. First and most importantly, Amadeus is a work of historical fiction. Many of the moments from the movie are based on fact, but most of the darker elements of the film are dramatized or made up entirely. Part of the problem, of course, is that Mozart died in the middle of composing the Requiem, so it is hard to know exactly what his intentions were with the piece. It is largely believed that he was composing the piece for his own funeral. This wide-held belief can be traced back to Constanze Mozart. Needing to stir up some gossip and spark interest, she claimed that her husband had been poisoned, that the work was largely complete before his demise, and that Death himself (according to her husband) had commissioned the work from him. There may be some spark of truth to this, however, as Mozart did not, in fact, ever meet the patron who commissioned the work, and being in poor health, may have been suffering from delusions.

So, how much of Mozart’s Requiem was actually written by Mozart? It’s hard to tell, especially with Constanze Mozart clouding the historical facts with her claims. We do know that the first movement, the Introit, and the second movement, Kyrie, were pretty much all Mozart, as they was written in his hand. It gets a little foggy after that, though there is evidence that he composed a large portion of the Confutatis and the Lacrimosa and left detailed notes for these and some other movements. When listening to Mozart’s Requiem, it is important to remember that about 50% of it composed posthumously by colleagues and students.

This is the Confutatis Maledictis. Considering this is one of the last things Mozart ever wrote (or outlined), it is so important that we get as much meat from it as we can. For instance, listen to those strings in the opening of this piece! The rhythm of the male chorus and the rhythm of the strings grate against each other, creating a feeling of agitation, anger. Then the stark contrast of the female chorus acts as a voice from Heaven itself. Indeed, they sing, “Voca me cum benedictis” or “Call me with the blessed”.  As the flames of hell engulf the sinners, a sweet angelic prayer sounds against the silence, calls to God, in hopes of being among the lucky blessed believers who will go to heaven.

The music that fanned the flames of my already burgeoning love affair with classical music was the Lacrimosa Dies Illa, of which Mozart wrote about nine measures. But what glorious nine measures they are!

Nine measures translates to about the first minute or so, before the whole choir enters. The words to this movement are roughly translated to:

Tearful will be that day,
on which from the ash arises
the guilty man who is to be judged.
Spare him therefore, God

I honestly don’t even know what to say about this music. It is as beautiful as it is haunting. While the film Amadeus may have stretched the truth a great deal, there are some moments, which are painfully true to historical fact. For instance, in the following clip, you will see the kind of funeral a beloved composer gets when he has far less money than talent. There is so much that we will never know about Mozart, and this is part of the reason why. Here is Lacrimosa Dies Illa from Amadeus.

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

This Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Ralph (pronounced Rafe, like Ralph Fiennes) Vaughan Williams is an astounding achievement. Especially in Britain, this piece has become one of the most popular of this generation, often topping classical music charts (yes, there are classical music charts). Interestingly, The Lark Ascending is not a new piece. It’s been around since the 1920’s. These last ten years or so, it seems Vaughan Williams’ music is experiencing its own little Renaissance, and thank goodness for that because The Lark Ascending may very well be my favorite instrumental piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is a quintessential Contemporary composer. His music borrows from myriad avenues such as previous classical works, folk tunes, world music, literature, anything he can get his hands on. This smorgasbord approach to music composition is indicative of the Contemporary period of music. The Contemporary period is certainly marked by, and possibly caused by, the development of recording technology. With music of all shapes and sizes at their fingertips, composers were given a playground of sounds to explore. This particular piece covers pretty much every aspect that makes Contemporary music great.

So what makes this piece special? Is it beautiful? What makes it beautiful? What emotions are being portrayed? Does this piece paint a picture for you? What of?

Upon first listening to this music, you may think to yourself, this sounds kind of… Asian? To that I say, good catch. You’ve got a musical ear! That’s because a large portion of this piece is composed using a pentatonic scale. (There she goes using big music words again.) Pentatonic scales are made up of five notes. Have you ever noticed that if you plink out a tune on a piano using nothing but the black keys, it sounds like Asian music? (Just to be clear, when I say “Asian music”, I am only referring to those Asian countries that use pentatonic scales, like China and Japan. Countries like the Philippines and India have their own scales.) That is because there are five black keys for every seven white keys. The white keys make up our diatonic scale. The black keys make up the pentatonic scale. (For musician readers, I am, of course, referring to the C major scale.) Like the Debussy piece we covered, this different scale is very effectively used to make us forget about the tonic (home base).

As the violin, representing the lark, plays notes from the pentatonic scale, the orchestra accompanies, often using our own diatonic scale. This gives us the sense that the violin is flying above them. By never letting the violin touch home base, the lark never has to touch the ground. The orchestra, I think, begins as the wind, the breeze which the lark caches with ease. It effortlessly rides the calm current, relishing in the freedom of living above gravity, all the while singing joyfully.

The title The Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra refers to the love the skylark holds for his home. In this case, the home is England. After the otherworldly, freeing melody of the skylark’s song, the orchestra changes the song at around 6:00, offering up a simple English folk tune. Now we have a setting. The lark is no longer just soaring on the wind but exploring the gorgeous English countryside. You see the sprawling valleys, and the lark soars effortlessly above them. The orchestra and violin begin to mimic each other, at one with another. The exhilaration of opening motif is now abandoned for a calmer, sweeter love song, which the countryside and the bird sing back and forth. This ends with the lark itself singing the English folk tune and the orchestra accompanying, and they join together in a solemn and meditative harmony. The flight begins again, this time calm and composed. At 13:00, the lark’s song begins again, sweet and supple, without the orchestra accompaniment. The lark’s song fills the void of empty quiet and slowly fades to silence.

Ralph Vaughan Williams included a portion of a poem by George Meredith with this piece.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

So, did Vaughan Williams capture these words? Can we hear the sound of the lark’s delicate song, the chirrups and whistles? Do we see the valley, quietly enfolding the lark like a golden cup? I think so.

P.S.- While this version of the music is gorgeous in its own right, it’s not actually my favorite recording. David Nolan certainly plays a lovely melody, but I feel the tempo is a rushed and the dynamics too simple. I was, unfortunately, unable to find a Nigel Kennedy version of The Lark Ascending that was not poor quality or split into separate sections. For this, I apologize. If this piece moved you, I urge you to find Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Lark Ascending. The subtlety and beauty is beyond compare.

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini

Even if you have never heard a single opera in your life, chances are that you know a few licks from Barber of Seville. In fact, when you think of opera and opera singers, you may hear something like this in your head: “Figaro Figaro Figaro FIGARO!” While some mistakenly think that this is from Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, it is actually the aria (opera song) “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.



Wait, now I am confused! Who the heck is this Figaro guy, and why is he trying to confuse me by being in so many darn operas? Well, that’s because Figaro is the hero in a famous set of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. These plays were all the rage, and they caused some rage in the upper classes too. The poor people liked them because they were all about the common man outsmarting the aristocracy, and the rich people hated them because the plays made them look like buffoons.

In 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed one of his greatest masterpieces, The Marriage of Figaro. This opera was actually based on the SECOND Beaumarchais play. Thirty years later, in 1816, the Barber of Seville, based on the FIRST play, premiered. If this is confusing to you, don’t worry- it’s confusing for us too. Luckily, they work pretty well as separate units. It is very easy to enjoy Marriage of Figaro even if you have not seen Barber of Seville, but since this post is about Barber of Seville, it is a moot point.

Anyway, when listening to or seeing an opera, the most important thing is the plot. In this particular opera, the plot is pretty simple. Count Almaviva has become infatuated with a beautiful (and wealthy) young woman named Rosina. She has not yet come of age, so she lives with a grumpy old man named Bartolo as his ward. Bartolo plans to marry Rosina himself and collect on her hefty dowry once she comes of age. This basically means that poor Rosina is a prisoner, and she cannot even speak to poor Count Almaviva. Enter Figaro the Barber. He has a plan, and it’s a good one. After all, every man, no matter how rich, at some point needs a good shave and a haircut (two bits).

Figaro uses his position of power (notice the theme of the common man having more power than the rich man) to gain entrance into the house of Bartolo and deliver love letters back and forth between Rosina and Count Almaviva. Eventually, Almaviva and Rosina finally meet when he disguises himself as a music tutor. Right in front of Bartolo’s nose, they profess their love through song, and while it is good sport for the two young lovers, Bartolo is not a complete idiot. He immediately rushes to the nearest notary to have a marriage contract written up. Luckily, after some hijinks, Almaviva and Figaro manage to use the marriage contract for themselves. Almaviva and Rosina are married, and Bartolo is given her dowry.

Okay, so maybe the plot is not as simple as I said it was. However, for an OPERA plot, this one is positively comprehensible. These days, it might be comparable to something like Oceans 11- convoluted but ultimately full of fluff and requiring very little actual brain power.

So, what makes Barber of Seville so special? First of all, the music is just about impossible to sing. Largo al Factotum is by far one of the easier pieces in the opera. The role of Rosina  is written for a lower female voice, but she is also expected to hit notes up in the rafters (window rattling notes). Count Almaviva has A LOT of notes. He is expected to sing long, virtuosic (freaking difficult) lines of melisma. Most Almavivas look like this by the end of the opera:

Out of Breath

All of that aside, I think what makes this opera truly great is its ability to speak to those who have never heard opera. It’s downright enjoyable to watch and listen to. Somehow it manages to cross over from music people to “normal” people. After all, people KNOW the “Figaro Figaro!” song even if they are not sure why. The Barber of Seville has become culturally embedded in our collective subconscious. For instance, do you recognize this delightful bit from the opera?



That’s right! This is the famous overture (opening) to Barber of Seville, made famous by Loony Tunes!



I must admit that every time I hear the overture to Barber of Seville, I snicker a little as I imagine Bugs tossing a delicious fruit salad on top of Elmer Fudd’s bald, bulbous head.

Mass for Pope Marcellus by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina


Have you ever wondered what heaven might sound like? I think it’s filled with the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance. No matter what your religious background, it’s hard to argue with the pure beauty of this music. The line between classical music and sacred music is historically very thin, and during the Early Music period, it was pretty much nonexistent. This is because churches were willing to pay BIG BUCKS for gorgeous music, and frankly, most people back then didn’t realize that it was even possible to have art without religion. Many of the great composers of history, from every time period, wrote works to be performed during the Catholic mass, including Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvorak, just to name a few.

The Catholic Mass is made up of five movements (or sections): Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. (Sometimes the Sanctus et Benedictus is split into two separate movements.) Some masses have added movements depending on the occasion, but these five make up the “meat” of the mass, if you will. The movement I have included for this entry is the first half of the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Pope Marcellus. When trying to get a first impression of a mass, it is often best to start with the final movement, the Agnus Dei, as it will usually cite sections from the previous movements. It also has very simple text, so how a composer sets it will tell you a lot about their particular style.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

This music has a whole lot of meat in it, and I could spout a quite a few musical terms at you to explain it. I’m going to do my best to keep the music jargon to a minimum. The fancy words don’t make it any easier to understand how lovely this music is, but a few of them might help you to explain it to someone else (and possibly even seem like you know what you are talking about when speaking to music professors). So here we go:

Melisma- This is what we call it when you sing a whole lot of notes for just one syllable. Most music today has a very clear-cut rule that one note= one syllable. In fact, Julie Andrews TOLD us that!

At about 3:05, Julie tells us in no uncertain terms that each word (or syllable) gets just ONE note. Wait, so Freulein Maria LIED to us?! Now don’t be too quick to judge her- that’s usually a golden rule, and probably over 80% of music is written this way. But even today, we can find melismas in popular music. Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, they are all masters of melisma.

Polyphony- As if the melisma didn’t make this piece incomprehensible enough, there is the added element of polyphony. That’s where more than one melody is happening at the same time. In this case, it is FOUR different melodies all happening at the same time, weaving in and out of harmony with one another. The phrases start and stop at different points, meaning the words almost never match up among the different voices. This gives the piece an ethereal, ephemeral feel, perfect for the high, echoing domes of grand cathedrals.

There was just one problem. The bishops weren’t quite sure they wanted his music there. During the 1560’s, the Council of Trent convened, and they made a lot of decisions pertaining to faith, the church, and the arts. One of the items up for discussion was the increasing amount of melisma and polyphony in sacred music. The problem? The music became more important than the words. To the church, that was a big no no. During this period, music was not a tool for self expression; its sole purpose was to praise God. Muddled words meant that listeners might forget the important messages and prayers in the text of the mass.

Supposedly, it was the music of Palestrina and this mass in particular, which changed the mind of the Council of Trent. They found his music to be so beautiful that it must certainly be a gift to God. There is, technically, no evidence to back up this widely-held belief. In fact, there may be no tie between Palestrina and the Council of Trent. It is possible that this story, much like that of George Washington and the cherry tree, was made up to prove a point. Palestrina’s music WAS beautiful, and it DID elevate the art form of sacred music. With Palestrina paving the way, and with sacred music allowed to blossom and flourish despite the incomprehensible text, Early Music would soon evolve into the high art of the Baroque period.