Thursday, March 5, 2015

Maurice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz

World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders that led the world into war as “marching morons.”

Battle of the Somme, July 1916
In August 1914, the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of outward tranquility and economic growth that fostered scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin, Monet, and Strauss). Then came  World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

Countless works of art have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization deteriorating into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation by stating, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how the war might explain Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In describing the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel composed a piece of music that many hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and hear how some people might make the connection. Listen to how the waltz slowly emerges as an elegant symbol of European society and then journeys through several episodes of its evolution before deteriorating into confusion and despair. The piece grows increasingly grotesque as music that is graceful, gentle, and elegant turns violent and unstable at the end. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened in Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might hear it that way.

Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz
An elegant waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3

5:02 – Episode 4

5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6

8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8: 20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from triple time (waltz time) to duple time (march time).

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mahler's First Symphony: Victory and Paradise

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies rank among the most challenging and rewarding pieces of orchestral music ever composed. If you listen to them often and gain the familiarity that comes with repeated hearings, you will gain a deep understanding of music that is inspirational and spiritually rewarding — to say the least.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

I especially enjoy the accessibility of Mahler's First Symphony. It has always been an easy symphony to get my students to appreciate before moving them forward to more difficult pieces by Mahler.

For my students, I have outlined Mahler's First Symphony in its entirety, However, for this blog I will keep things brief and instead provide only a synopsis of the symphony's program, followed by a short list of what to listen for in the music.

The "Story" within Mahler's First Symphony
The symphony begins in with an awakening of Nature and the anticipation of a new day. This awakening is followed by a section in which we meet the symphony's hero, a wayfarer who loves life and loves the world. After several statements of the hero's joyful attitude throughout the first and second movements, we learn in the third movement of the dark struggles the hero faces, struggles that were foreshadowed in the first movement. In the third movement we also listen to the hero gain wisdom and peace of mind sitting under a linden tree next to a grave. During the fourth and final movement, the hero is thrust into the Inferno. Life is not easy and the struggles that life brings might easily crush the hero's spirit. However, we learn through the Victory Motif in the trumpets and the Paradise Motif in the French horns that the hero's spirit (a metaphor for the human spirit) will endure. Even in death, the hero finds victory. 

What to Listen for in the Music
1. Mahler quotes himself liberally. Understanding Mahler often begins with knowing other pieces of music he has composed. In the First Symphony, for example, the main theme of the first movement (4:18 on the video below) comes from a song Mahler wrote titled "Over the Fields I Went This Morning" from Songs of the Wayfarer. The theme represents the joy of being alive, especially when living in harmony with Nature. ("I love this world so much," sings the Wayfarer.) In the third movement Mahler provides the music from a song titled "The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved," (30:37-32:08 on the video below), which also comes from Songs of the Wayfarer. The song is about the tranquility that a tired traveler finds under a linden tree. (Listen to this section and learn how Mahler can break you heart!)

2. Anticipation of music to come. Mahler often uses themes and motifs to foreshadow what will come later in his symphonies. An astute listener will not be surprised by the sudden and shocking trip into the Inferno that begins the fourth movement of his First Symphony. Mahler had foreshadowed this trip during the first movement (13:21-14:30 on the video below).

3. The Undertow. No matter how much joy or peace of mind Mahler provides with his music, we are often reminded of the "undertow" that threatens all human beings. In the midst of an idyllic awakening of Nature at the beginning of the First Symphony, Mahler uses a terrifying chromatic bass motif (3:30 on the video below) to remind us of the pain that life can bring . (Mahler certainly understood life's pain – eight of his siblings died in infancy, two more as young adults, and his daughter at age four.)

4. The Breakthroughs! Mahler is a master at providing extended sections of stress and tension followed by musical "breakthroughs." In short, Mahler provides many goose bump moments that will thrill and inspire you. (Start at 44:00 on the video below. Listen for the breakthrough at 44:47 followed by the Victory Motif in the trumpets at 45:04 and the Paradise Motif in the French horns at 45:17.)

For your information, the video below shows Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a complete performance of Mahler's First Symphony.

00:44 – beginning of first movement
16:20 – beginning of the second movement
25:07 – beginning of the third movement
35:40 – beginning of the fourth movement


To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911, Deutsche Grammophon conducted an internet poll to select the greatest recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies. The results of the poll led to a 13-disk collection of Mahler's nine symphonies gathered together in a set titled Mahler: The People’s Edition. Buy the set and listen to legendary recordings at a reasonable price. The recording selected for Symphony No. 1 is performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik. I give it the highest recommendation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Tyro’s Guide to Classical Era Forms

One of the reasons I love listening to classical music is that it gives me an opportunity to exercise my mind. Better than working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, listening to a piece of instrumental music and trying to identify its component parts provides me with an intellectual challenge on par with reading a great novel or trying to learn a foreign language.

For those who have never thought of music in this way and would like to “deconstruct” a piece of music simply for the mental exercise it provides, I recommend beginning with the music of Mozart or Beethoven. The sections of their music are, in most cases, so clearly defined that they serve as a good beginning for understanding musical form.

Here’s how to get started with deconstructing Classical era (1730-1820) forms.

First, learn about the musical forms of the Classical era.
Next, sit and listen to a piece of music that represents one of those forms. Give the music your full attention and don’t do anything else while you are listening.  Listen again and again until you can recognize each of the component parts of the form.

It may seem difficult at first, but with repeated listening your ability to identify the sections of each form will increase exponentially.

Here’s four examples from Mozart and Beethoven.

Theme and Variations
A theme and variations begins with a main theme that is stated in its entirety before being transformed through a series of variations.

Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K 331, Andante Grazioso (1783), James Liu, piano, Cleveland Institute of Music

Theme – 0:05
Variation 1 – 0:50
Variation 2 – 1:32
Variation 3 – 2:11
Variation 4 – 2:54
Variation 5 – 3:35
Variation 6 – 5:15
Minuet and Trio
A minuet and trio is composed in triple meter, which means the beat can be divided into groups of three. A minuet and trio contains three sections: a minuet waltz, a contrasting section that is called a trio, and a return to the beginning that is called the da capo.

Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 , Third Movement (1787), Gewandhaus Quartet

Minuet - 0:07
Trio – 0:48
Da Capo – 1:46
A rondo begins with a main theme that is usually light and engaging. After several departures the main theme keeps returning, providing listeners with a sense of satisfaction upon each return.

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D Major (Arabella Steinbacher, violin)

Rondo Theme – 0:30
First Departure – 1:36
Rondo Theme – 2:44
Second Departure – 3:36
Rondo Theme – 4:51
Third Departure – 6:00
Cadenza – 7:27
Rondo Theme – 8:52
Sonata Form
In sonata form composers provide two or more themes and then develop those themes before returning to them at the end. Sonata form is usually organized in at least three sections. In the exposition we hear the main themes that will serve as the unifying element of the entire piece. The exposition is usually repeated so that listeners can hear the themes a second time. In the development the composer tells the “story” of the main themes. Composers are free to do almost anything in the development. In the recapitulation the main themes of the exposition return and listeners are given a sense of resolution after the instability of the development.

Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, First Movement (1788)
Graphic score provided by Music Animation Machine

Theme 1 – 0:08
Bridge to Theme 2 – 0:38
Theme 2 – 0:57
Closing Section – 1:23
Theme 1 – 2:02
Bridge to Theme 2 – 2:33
Theme 2 – 2:50
Closing Section – 3:17

3:56 – 5:10

Theme 1 – 5:10
Bridge to Theme 2 – 5:39
Theme 2 – 6:20
Closing Section (Coda) – 6:52
The descriptions and examples I have provided above will only get you started on what is sure to be a never ending journey. What fun you will have learning to recognize changes in tonality and discovering the unlimited ways that Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers play around with the forms to surprise their audiences and develop their unique artistic vision.


Monday, December 16, 2013

A Tyro's Guide to Three Types of Instrumental Music

In an attempt to keep things simple I’m going to use today’s posting to say that every piece of music in the immense and complicated repertoire of classical instrumental music can be placed into three categories. That may sound absurd, but I don't believe it is, and an understanding of the three categories has helped make classical music more accessible to my students.

Here goes …

When you listen to a piece of classical instrumental music you can generally classify it in one of three ways:
  1. Descriptive Music
  2. Absolute Music with a Predetermined Musical Narrative
  3. Absolute Music with no Predetermined Musical Narrative

And here's how I'd describe those three types of music.

Descriptive music provides musical metaphors to describe something beyond the music. Quite simply, it's a type of music that tells a story or paints a picture. Whether the music is about idealized love (Strauss’ Don Juan) or ocean waves crashing on the rocks of a cave (Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture), descriptive music can be understood in non-musical terms.

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is a good example of descriptive music. Listen to the symphony and you will hear the sounds of chirping birds, dancing peasants, and even a thunderstorm. You can enjoy the symphony without knowing what it’s describing, but it’s so much more fun, more elegant, if you have been told about the images Beethoven was trying to paint in each of the five movements.

The second movement, embedded below, is titled "Scene by the Brook." Listen to it, and you should hear the sound of water flowing, insects chirping, and birds singing.

Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 (Manuel López-Gómez conducting the Simon Bólívar Symphony Orchestra)

Descriptive music is often called “program” music because the composer provides some information — sometimes extensive program notes — telling us what the music is about. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, for example, is about heroism. Mahler’s Second Symphony is about Judgement Day and Resurrection. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is about (no surprise) Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Unlike descriptive music, absolute music has no meaning beyond the music. The music may give you goosebumps or bring you to tears, but you won't know the reason why. After all, it's “just” music, providing no story and no metaphor. At least the music has no story or metaphor that you can put into words.

This may sound like absolute music takes less work than descriptive music. After all, if there’s no program, what must you do other than listen?

If only it were that easy.

Absolute music can be divided into two types: music that provides a predetermined musical narrative and music that has no predetermined narrative.

Listening to a piece with a predetermined musical narrative takes a little work. For one thing, you must learn about musical forms. A rondo, for example, will begin with a main theme and then depart from that theme before bringing it back. If it’s a good rondo, you should feel a sense of satisfaction when you return to the main theme.

Take note that what you are hearing in a rondo — at least a rondo with no program — is a musical narrative, not a metaphorical one. You won’t be hearing running water or birds chirping, you will simply be hearing a main theme and a departure from that theme. The music provides no meaning beyond the fact, for example, that the main theme is in D major and stated in duple time. 

The rondo embedded below comes from the the third movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major. Here's an outline of the rondo form used in the movement:
0:30 — Main theme 
1:36 — First Departure
2:44 — Return of the Main Theme
3:36 — Second Departure
4:51 — Return of the Main Theme
6:00 — Third Departure
8:52 — Return of the Main Theme

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D Major (Arabella Steinbacher, violin)

As I’ve already stated, music with a musical narrative takes a little work for the listener. You will need to learn what happens in various musical forms: rondo, minuet and trio, theme and variations, sonata form, and many others. You will also need to know when composers are most likely to use each of the forms and appreciate what composers are doing within the forms. The music will be so much more fun if you can put all this together. It takes a little effort, but its worth the rewards.

Some absolute music has no predetermined musical narrative. At least it has no narrative that will matter much to the average listener — it really is nothing more than music. Beautiful. Heartwarming. Magnificent. There’s really nothing for you to learn before you listen.

The following piece by Bach can be classified as absolute music with no predetermined musical narrative for the average listener to understand. All you have to do is listen — and enjoy.

Bach, Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (Tzvi Erez, piano)

I have simplified things quite a bit in this blog and those who are new to classical music should realize they have much more to learn. (Don't we all?) I’m hoping that what I have provided serves as a good starting point for the Tyros. A little knowledge, after all, will only make the music sound better. As Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Books for Tyros

A few weeks ago I published a blog titled “A Tyro’s Guide to Understanding Classical Music.” I listed five steps in the process of learning to appreciate classical music. Since then, I’ve decided I can reduce the list to two:
  1. Listen to a piece of music several times until the subtleties of its form and structure become familiar to you 
  2. Learn something about the piece you are listening to — learn about its historical context, the composer who created it, and the terminology necessary to understanding it.
That’s it — only two steps toward discovering the power of classical music and enhancing your life with musical masterworks.

The first suggestion — asking you to listen to a piece over and over — may take a little time, but time spent listening to great music is never wasted. The second suggestion, however, takes a little more effort. You will need to do some reading, some research. Even so, there's no need to worry because the resources are ubiquitous. You should have no problem finding good books that teach you almost everything a Tyro needs to know about classical music and how to enjoy it.

I have assembled a personal library of over 170 books on classical music — I’m soon going to need another bookcase — and thought I'd use this blog to list a few of my personal recommendations. The list could have been much longer, but I decided to to keep it short and only recommend the books that I think are best for Tyros. I should mention that every book I have recommended resides in my personal library, and I have used all of them extensively in my teaching and writing. Someone who's new to classical music can't go wrong with any of these books.

Who’s Afraid of Classical Music? by Michael Walsh
An entertaining, sometimes irreverent book that Tyros will want to read cover to cover. For Tyros, this book may be the best place to begin a classical music education.

How to Listen to Great Music by Robert Greenberg
A book written by the Elvis of music historians. Dr. Greenberg’s Great Courses lectures are immensely popular and for good reason — he provides a scholarly approach to understanding classical music that is tremendously entertaining. For some, his courses might seem expensive. However, the book summarizing much of what he says in those lectures is inexpensive and should be an essential addition to the Tyro’s library.

What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland
A classic in the music appreciation genre since it was first published in 1939.

The Complete Classical Music Guide edited by John Burrows with Charles Wiffen (DK Limited)
A readable and colorful reference book for those who are just entering the world of classical music.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Safford
A book containing terrific information about composers and the historical styles their music represents.

All You Have to Do is Listen and What Makes It Great? by Rob Kapilow
Essential books for Tyros. I know of no one right now who is publishing better books designed to explain classical music to beginners than Rob Kapilow. His books are even accompanied by a website that provides free samples of the music he discusses.

The NPR Classical Music Companion by Miles Hoffman
An easy-to-understand dictionary of musical terms.

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians edited by Don Michael Randel
A more extensive and technical dictionary of terms than Hoffman’s NPR companion.

Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding
A book that provides provocative information about music history and the composers of great music — a book that will make you think.

The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg
The best reference book for those seeking information about composers.

The Lives and Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen
Another great reference book for those seeking information about composers.

The Rest is Noise and Listen to This by Alex Ross
Two books for Tyros who are ready to graduate to more “advanced” literature. Alex Ross is a great music critic — possibly the George Bernard Shaw of our time

A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, and Claudia V. Palisca
A standard textbook for college survey classes in music history. It would be difficult to find anyone who has majored in music in the last forty years who does not know about A History of Western Music.