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.

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?

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.