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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.


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.