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?

“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.

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.

Gretchen am Spinnrade by Franz Schubert

The piece that I am covering today is one of my all-time favorites, performed by the incomparable Renee Fleming. It is called Gretchen am Spinnrade, which is Schubert’s take on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s literary masterpiece Faust. The character Gretchen (also called Margaret, for some reason I am not quite clear on) is a virgin, and she wants to stay that way. That is, until Faust comes along. With the devil helping him, Faust easily wins the heart and virginity of poor Gretchen, leaving her pregnant and destroyed. I won’t reveal how the play ends, but it is a fascinating read (or watch) if you have the time.

This particular song is about the moment between seduction and the actual lovemaking. Gretchen knows that it is already too late, that she will give herself to him when he comes again. She sits at her spinning wheel (Spinnrade) and contemplates her dilemma, reflecting on the one passionate kiss they shared.  She yearns for more, knowing it will cause her own destruction. . You can find the German text and English translation here. []

So, first of all, this is a sung classical piece that is not opera. Wait, what?! I thought all classical singers did opera? Well, not exactly. Many, if not most, professional singers do perform opera, but it is not the only avenue for musical self expression as a singer. We also have the art song. These are usually pieces written for solo piano and voice, like this one. Franz Schubert is one of the great composers of art song. In fact, he wrote over 600 art songs or “lieder”.

So who was this Franz Schubert guy? He was another one of those composers that falls on the cusp between two periods, the Classical and the Romantic. Many of his contemporaries had the privilege to work under greats like Mozart and Beethoven. Schubert was not so lucky, and it may be because of this that he was able to form his own style, which is clearly Romantic. In fact, during the Classical period, composing songs was not generally considered “high art”. Symphonies and operas were the demand of the day. (Schubert composed some of those too, but his art songs are considered to be his greatest works.)

Now it’s time for the fun part. What makes this piece great? Is it beautiful? What is it trying to say? How does it differ from other great music?

One of the many reasons that piece stands out to me (and many like it from this time period) is the simplicity. When everyone else was writing pieces for 36 piece orchestra, Schubert knew that writing a piece for voice and piano would lend a sense of solitary introspection. We don’t often wear our heartbreak on our sleeves; we don’t shout it to the world. When we are alone, the truth comes out. Who on earth could feel alone with zillions of instruments playing beneath them?

In this piece particularly, we get an extra sense of loneliness because the piano is not, in fact, a piano. It’s her spinning wheel. Listening to the accompaniment gives you a sense of spinning, doesn’t it? And the motif (short repeating theme) is constant. The only moment where the spinning wheel ceases its steady, driving rhythm is as Gretchen reflects on the kiss they shared. She loses herself in it, and the spinning wheel stops. As she comes back to reality, the spinning wheel picks back up again, but it seems sadder this time. She is resigned to her fate and allows herself to yearn for him once more.

The song ends the way it began. She sings “My peace is gone, and my heart is heavy.” It would seem that her spinning wheel is not only a real object but a metaphor for her tormented thoughts. She thinks of his kiss then returns to her pain. She yearns for his touch then returns to her pain. As the wheel is spinning, so too is her mind. Reeling. Grasping. Perhaps, holding onto the spinning wheel may be, in a very real way, her last desperate attempt to hold onto her purity, her sanity. By the end, it is useless. The wheel has become mechanical, and she is lost in him.

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!