Monday, February 26, 2018

Manuel de Falla

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Manuel de Falla lived in Madrid and Paris before settling for several years in Granada. In 1939, the Spanish Civil War forced him to move to Argentina where he died in 1946. Often regarded as the greatest Spanish composer of the twentieth century, Falla has been classified as part Impressionist and part Neo-Classicist, composing stage works (including musical comedies, ballets, and operas), orchestral music, vocal music, chamber music and piano music. He is known for composing music that sounds distinctly "Spanish."
And why am I writing about Falla? Frankly, I am looking for an excuse to embed the following two videos on this blog. The Hommage pour le Tambeau de Debussy is haunting and the performance of the "Ritual Fire Dance" is great fun. I recommend turning the volume up for the Fire Dance.


"[Hommage pour le Tombeau] is only four minutes long, but includes twenty minutes of music." 
– Benjamin Britten

Falla, Hommage pour le Tombeau de Debussy, Justyna Sobczak, guitar

Falla, "Ritual Fire Dance" from El Amor Brujo
(Arranged by R. Leopold and performed by Cellomania Croata directed by V. Despalj.)

For more videos from Cellomania Croatia check out the website titled "Crocellomania." You'll find a treasure trove of great performances.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Gustav Loved Alma: An Adagietto of Timeless, Undying Love

In 1901, Gustav Mahler held the position of Director of the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly the most prestigious conducting position in Europe. In that same year, Alma Schindler was a young beauty courted by artistic and aristocratic men throughout Vienna. She was also an artist in her own right — a good musician and talented composer. On November 7, Gustav met Alma at a social gathering. He was 41. She was 22.

Soon after they met, Gustav sent Alma a copy of the fourth movement adagietto from his new symphony in C-sharp minor. Although the adagietto contained no singing and therefore no lyrics, Alma understood the music contained a message. Gustav had sent Alma a love letter written with musical notation. He used the movement as a song without words to dedicate his love to the young woman he had just met. Alma understood the message and reportedly asked Gustav to pay her a visit. Within days, only one month after they met, they were engaged to be married.

In a larger context, Mahler had composed the Adagietto for the beginning of the third and last part of his Fifth Symphony. The first part of the symphony (movements one and two), provides a musical exploration of the various emotions of how people deal with death. The second part (the third movement) provides dance music as a metaphor for life, an expression of how life goes on. The third part (movements four and five) explores the life-sustaining power of love and a reaffirmation of life.

It was the beginning of the the third part — the fourth movement’s expression of the power of love — that Gustav sent to Alma. Although the movement is composed in common duple meterMahler scored the music so that groupings of the beat are difficult to hear. It’s not a stretch to say that this can be heard as a metaphor for the timelessness of love.

The fourth movement also provides music that can be heard as an acceptance of death, a feeling that we cannot experience love without ultimately experiencing loss. In the end, Gustav had sent Alma a message of timeless, undying love, a love that would last until death.

Watch the performance I have embedded below and try to hear the Adagietto as I have described it. My interpretation, although quite standard, may not be the only way to hear the movement, but it’s an interpretation that I feel should make sense for most people.

The movement is organized in three sections (ABA).
  • Section A — 0:00
  • Section B — 3:47
  • Section A — 6:32
Maher, Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement, “Adagietto,” Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Top Secret Drum Corps

The Top Secret Drum Corps is based in Basel, Switzerland, a city that is said to have over 3000 active drummers performing in a culture rich in the tradition of drumming. Top Secret gained recognition for its controversial challenge to the traditional Basel style of drumming, playing faster and more playfully than the Basel tradition was willing, at first, to allow. The success of Top Secret at international festivals has evidently ended the controversy.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Identifying “Great” Music

"Good" music is music that you enjoy, music that for a brief moment takes you away from your problems and makes you glad to be alive. It doesn't matter whether you are listening to Gustav Mahler, Chuck Berry, or Beyoncé —  if the music makes you think, smile, tap your foot, dance, shed a tear, or reflect on the human condition, you are obligated to say nothing more than you enjoyed it.

The question is: when does music become more than something you simply enjoy? When does it become “great”? 

Music, like all art, is a product of the world in which it is created, the creation of a person living at a certain time and place in history. I doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach composed music thinking about a world that would not exist until decades and centuries after he died, a world that he could not imagine. He was composing for the audiences — mostly church goers — of his time.

The fact that Bach's music still speaks to us almost three centuries after it was composed is what makes his music “great.”

For me, great music, quite simply, is any music that has stood the test of time, any music that is still worth listening to long after the era of its creation has come to an end.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is not performed in concert halls today because it is a fascinating artifact from long ago; it survives because it is an entertaining and inspiring piece of music that works for modern audiences. Even though the Ninth Symphony was composed almost two centuries ago, it remains a timeless piece of music with a message that reaches far beyond the world in which it was created.

According to Mark Evan Bonds in Music as Thought, European composers wrote 16,558 symphonies in the late-eighteenth century. Only a handful of those symphonies — mostly those composed by Haydn and Mozart — have stood the test of time and are able to strike home with modern audiences. Looking at this information we should ask ourselves an obvious question: why have so many of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart survived while others have been forgotten? Why do some works endure while others are ignored?

In my opinion, a piece of music will survive for at least one of the following reasons:

1. It is the work of a highly skilled artist.
Modern audiences remain awestruck by Johann Sebastian Bach's musical genius. The complexity of the themes and harmonic progressions that he developed within well-defined musical forms and contrapuntal technique are still used to teach theory and performance to music majors. Bach may have died in 1750, but his music is immortal due to his extraordinary expertise as a composer.

2. It elevates the human spirit.
Listening to the organ with all stops pulled out at the conclusion of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony or the brassy “Paradise” theme at the end of Mahler’s First Symphony can make audiences glad to be alive. Saint-Saëns and Mahler wanted audiences to feel an emotional rush when their symphonies were first performed in the nineteenth century, and audiences are still experiencing that rush in the twenty-first century.

3. It identifies an eternal truth about being human.
Although the song “Der Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert is almost two hundred years old, it remains a frightening experience for modern audiences, giving voice to the universal childhood fear of evil creatures lurking in the dark. The finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed because it draws from the deep despair that is too often a part of the human experience. Timeless music taps into something timeless about being human.

In the spirit of keeping great music alive, I invite you to listen to a piece of music today that was composed over 200 years ago, something by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, for example. I hope you will enjoy what you hear.

(This blog was composed under the influence of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a truly great piece of music.)

Christian Thielemann conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker

© 2011 James L. Smith