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?

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.)

“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.

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.

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.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy

So I am going to try to thwart your expectations every chance I get, starting right now. Were you expecting Beethoven or Bach? If this was a classical radio station, yeah, you could probably expect those great composers to take priority. However, Claude Debussy is the man who inspired this blog, so we shall begin with Claude Debussy. This piece is called Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. For those who might not know, a faun is a Greek mythological creature, which is half-man half-goat. They are known for being lazy, lecherous, and darn fun to have around in a party.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in the 1890’s. This piece is considered late Romantic by some and early Contemporary by others. What that really boils down to is that this was written during a time of transition. France is known for balking at the status quo, and Debussy was no different. The Romantic period was known for its emotional edge, but the French did not believe music needed to be so dour and serious all the time. Debussy represents a huge turning point in classical music.

So, upon listening to this piece of music, what should be listening for? First of all, do you like it? Is there something that makes it stand out? Do you think you would recognize it again if you heard it? What makes it different from everything else?

Well, for starters, the opening line- its hard to forget. That’s because the opening line is just a simple scale, but NOT the one we usually use, which is called a diatonic scale (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do). In this piece, we do not have a diatonic scale. We have a chromatic scale. Have you ever looked at a piano and wondered why the heck there are white keys and black keys? That’s because the piano is made to play a diatonic C scale. The white keys are Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. The black keys are the notes in between. A chromatic scale is when you play ALL of the white keys AND the black keys.

By writing this piece chromatically instead of diatonically, we lose our sense of Do (home base). While that can be jarring, in this instance, it serves to create an ethereal sound. It’s easy to lose yourself in music like this as the music never seems to touch solid ground. Interestingly, the notes the make up the beginning of this piece create a tritone. Tritones were known in classical music to be the devil’s chords, and they were actively unused. Debussy purposely uses these notes, however, to push us even further away from home base. By starting us with notes we never hear together in “normal” music, we find it hard to grasp what the “correct” notes ought to be.

The texture is another memorable aspect of this piece. It alternates between delicate and lush. The flute at the beginning of the piece plays alone, acting as possibly the sound of a faun waking up and taking up his panpipe. As the piece continues, more and more instruments join in, creating a beautiful cacophony. Does this represent delight? Exhilaration? Passion? Considering the character of the faun, these are probably all true at one point or another.

This piece of music is interesting in that it is a musical representation of a poem by Stephane Mallarme. You can find a translation of the text here. Do you think the music accurately portrays what the poem is trying to say? Is it more important to literally translate the poem to music or to capture the mood of the piece?

So, this was my very first blog entry. I hope someone out there enjoys it. I have no idea what tomorrow’s music will be. I will have to wait for inspiration to strike. Thanks for reading!