Friday, March 28, 2008

Living the Sped-Up Life? Use Classical Music to Slow Down

I saw an article in the USA Today recently that in a weird way explains precisely why I started this classical music blog.

Let me share a few choice quotes:

“Don't have time to read all those magazines you subscribe to? Not a problem. A new website called Brijit offers one-paragraph summaries of even the most complex and deeply researched tomes.”

“Speed dating too slow? Speed dispatches with the in-person part of the encounter and sets strangers up for three-minute rounds of e-mailing or instant messaging. ‘We found that people think filling out long forms for most dating sites is too time-consuming,’ says co-founder Dan Abelon. ‘Our goal is to get people together, but even faster than before.’”

“Take Irit Epelbaum. Compared with the laid-back pace of her native Bolivia, her rapid-fire Silicon Valley lifestyle is the stuff of madness. But by our time-crunched standards, she's family. ‘I drop off my laundry on the way out the door, I listen to Portuguese language tapes during my commute, I exercise at lunch if I can, and I eat at my desk.’ No wonder Epelbaum, 28, was intrigued by Though the service didn't yield a boyfriend, it did fit neatly into her schedule.”

People who live this way (and at times I include myself in this group) tend to confuse the idea of doing something faster with doing something better.

I had a boss once tell me that it had been years since he had actually read a book. Frankly, it showed in his investment decisions, and in how consensus-driven and fundamentally uncreative his thinking was. He was too busy, naturally! Of course you can also waste a lot of time reading hundreds of one-paragraph "executive summaries" of things that help you arrive at an utterly consensus view. Or doing hyper-speed-dating that doesn't “yield” a boyfriend.

Which brings me to classical music.

The thing about classical music is you can't boil it down into a one-paragraph summary. You have to invest the time to listen to it. You have to sit there and concentrate. It’s like lifting weights for your attention span.

And I'm all too aware of how--over 12 years of a high-energy, low-free-time career--an amazing collection of classical music sat on my shelves, ignored, unlistened to and wasted. I just never chose to make the time to listen to it.

That changes this year with this blog.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz lived a colorful life, full of mistresses, marriages, chronic illness, and not least, laudanum addiction. Today we'll cover his best known work, the Symponie Fantastique, written to express his unrequited love for an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson.

The interesting thing about Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is that it tells a story, unlike the bulk of the symphonic works we've listened to so far. And you can really hear it in the music.

Let's turn to the introduction to Berlioz's own program notes that he wrote for the symphony:

"A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere."
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869 )
Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1973

The "idee fixe," a musical representation of the woman he loves, is a specific melody in the symphony that returns again and again in different guises and played by different instruments . The first appearance of this melody is at approximately the 4:50 mark in the first movement.

Listen to this melody and see if you can recognize it in its various forms in the other movements--particuarly in the fourth movement, The March to the Scaffold. In this movement the idee fixe returns right before the young man is executed (actually it's a dream sequence where he imagines that he is executed), and then Berlioz paints a surprisingly graphic musical picture of the blade coming down--and amazingly--of the severed head bouncing (or rolling?) off afterward.

Now there's something that I bet even Beethoven couldn't depict in musical terms.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #1

Mendelssohn was a child prodigy comparable in talent to Mozart. In fact, some of the works he composed in his teens were thought of as superior to Mozart's when he was at a similar age.

We also have Mendelssohn to thank for reviving the world's interest in the works of Bach. In 1829, Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, at a time when Bach's music had become nearly completely forgotten. The performance was so powerful and so well-regarded that it kicked off what we now think of as the "19th century Bach revival."
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
The disc I have is a three-CD collection of all five of Mendelssohn's symphonies, and with any luck, I'll have a chance to blog about all of them. I've posted a link to this CD below, along with another, similar Deutsche Grammophon collection of Mendelssohn's symphonies with several additional works.

A few quick notes:

1) The First Symphony clocks in at just 30 minutes; yet another classical work that you can get to know without making a major time commitment.

2) In the 2nd movement you can really see why people think Mendelssohn has a profound gift for composing music for strings.

3) Have you ever heard a military waltz? Is there such a thing? That's what the 3rd movement sounds like to me. Also, listen for the two distinct parts of the 3rd movement: The martial-waltz at the beginning of the movement fades (at about the 2:25 mark) into beautiful woodwind melodies layered over rising arpeggios by the strings. Then the movement returns to the original theme at 5:40 or so.

4) In the 4th movement, listen in at around the 3:20 mark for a fugue-like section that is reminiscent of Bach. And finally, what do you think of the Beethoven-style overwrought ending?

One final note: One work by Mendelssohn that everybody should consider owning is his Octet in E-flat Major for Strings. It is on the second CD collection below. I don't own it (yet), but I would recommend anyone wanting to own what is widely considered one of Mendelssohn's greatest works. Amazingly, he composed it at age 16!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mahler: Symphony #1

It's about time we tackled a Mahler Symphony, so let's start at the start and listen to his First Symphony.

Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860, what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and during his career he was famous much more for his conducting skills than his symphonies. He even conducted New York's Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic during the last four or so years of his life.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony #1
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991
A few things about this symphony:

1) First of all, when you fire up a Mahler symphony, be sure to keep one finger on the volume button. I don't know any composer who goes through quite such a range of dynamics, from practically inaudible to roaringly loud.

2) This symphony was reviled at its first performance. Mahler later said, "In Budapest, where I performed it for the first time, my friends bashfully avoided me afterward; nobody dared talk to me about the performance and my work, and I went around like a sick person or an outcast."

3) Listen for the "cuckoo calls" in the first movement, played by the woodwinds.

4) At the beginning of the third movement, listen for the "Frere Jacques" theme, but note how it's played in a funereal-sounding minor key.

5) And finally, if you're not a brass instrument player, you'll wish you were after listening to the ripping final movement of this symphony.

Enjoy! We'll be returning to Mahler several more times over the course of this year. If you're interested in adding Mahler to your classical music collection, feel free to peruse the links below.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Chopin: Preludes

Most people, when they want to become more familiar with classical music, tend to focus almost exclusively on symphonic works.

This is a big mistake.

I think there are a few reasons people favor symphonies. First, everybody's heard of the major symphonic composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc; so it's certainly reasonable (and easier) to learn classical music by starting with these guys and their key works.

Also, the symphony is seen by many as the pinnacle of the classical music art form. Symphonies are big, they're dramatic, they have gravitas. And when you go to hear your local symphony orchestra, they're typically going to play--you guessed it--a symphony.

But there's an entire universe of beautiful music to explore beyond the traditional symphony: solo piano, string quartets, piano trios, and a whole host of other chamber music forms. I'll confess, I had been listening to classical music for two decades before I made a meaningful effort to learn some of the great works outside of the standard symphonic repetory. Hopefully, with the help of this blog, you can make that leap considerably faster.

In today's post we will take that leap, starting with Chopin and his preludes for piano.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Preludes, op. 28 (1838-1839)
Ivo Pogorelich, piano

Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Before these works were written, a "prelude" was supposed to be a musical preface; it was a brief introduction, either to a larger work, or to succeeding movements of the same work.

Chopin's preludes, however, weren't introductions to anything; they were meant to stand on their own as self-contained, miniature compositions. In fact, one misguided critic from Chopin's time even asked, "Preludes to what?"

The question has become rhetorical now.

Most of these pieces are very short, some even less than a minute long. Listen closely to Preludes 4, 9, 11, and 15 for some particularly wonderful works.

Watch out, or these preludes will inspire you to take up the piano!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bruckner: Symphony #1

Today we'll tackle Bruckner for the second time by listening to his First Symphony.

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896 )
Symphony #1 (1865-1866)
London, 1996

We've talked before about how it can be an intimidating investment in time to take on a fairly long classical music work like this 45-minute symphony.

So if you're looking to experience a more bite-sized portion of Bruckner's First, try starting out with the 12-minute second movement. The movement starts out almost atonally, but then resolves into particularly beautiful waves of overlapping melodies performed by the strings. Pay close attention from (roughly) the 2:36 mark to about the 5:00 minute mark for this section. Finally, see what you think of the triumphant final two minutes of the second movement. Those are two of my favorite parts of the entire symphony.

Let me share just a few thoughts on the Chicago Symphony, which performs today's CD, and why I love them. It's their brass section, and particularly their low brass: the trombones, bass trombone and tuba. These guys have just a huge sound and they are one of the orchestra's greatest strengths.

Keep in mind, the lower the register in which an instrument plays, the more power it takes to create a big sound (apologies for dipping into a bit of jargon there: a "big" sound is symphony-speak for really loud, but not off-key, blaring, or out of control. Likewise for the less official term "huge" used in the paragraph above).

A little sprite of a piccolo player can be heard on top of an entire orchestra because of the accoustics of her instrument--her high notes will soar above everything else. But the tuba and trombone section of the Chicago symphony have to tap into frighteningly awesome lungpower to create the massive, yet controlled, sonic foundation underlying this recording of Bruckner's First.

To me, these guys sound like seven foot tall giants.

NB: The disk in the link below is actually the same disk as the recording I own--one of the rare instances where I've been able to find the same recording on Amazon (usually I will substitute another disk by a reputable orchestra so you'll still be assured of a high-quality recording). This particular recording is of very high quality, and it will also give you a sense of what I'm talking about when I refer to the "big" sound of the Chicago Symphony.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #7

We had dinner with some good friends last night and one of them commented on how he's trying to learn more about classical music, but he just didn't really like Beethoven. Too heavy and too serious.

At first I thought to myself: Is this possible? Somebody who doesn't like Beethoven? How can this be?

George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #4
Symphony #7

Sony Classical, 1992
We talked for a bit about how some of Beethoven's music, particularly his Fifth Symphony, has become so familiar to listeners and used in so many formats that the symphony--or at least the introductory "dut dut dut daaaaahhh" part--borders on self-parody. Remember "A Fifth of Beethoven" from the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack?

I can see how mighty works like his Ninth and Fifth symphonies might be seen as ponderous and even a bit over the top, and I can also see how, compared to Mozart or Bach, Beethoven seems to be taking himself way too seriously.

On the other hand, in many of his symphonic works, Beethoven was tackling themes of life, death and fate that had immense gravitas. This is serious stuff, and his works therefore had psychological and emotional content that, until this point in history, no one had really been able to incorporate into symphonic music.

If there's anything I'm annoyed with about Beethoven, it's that the collective weight of his body of work screwed up everything for guys like Brahms and Bruckner, who were too intimidated to try their hand at composing their own symphonies. They felt that Beethoven had already said all there was to say, and that it would be pure hubris to attempt to add to it.

Maybe the Seventh, then, is the best Beethoven symphony for our friend to start with. It still contains the essential character and sound of a Beethoven symphony (you can't expect a Beethoven symphony not to have at least some self-importance), but this particular symphony just doesn't take itself quite so seriously.

Even the ending of the Seventh highlights this: listen to the final sixty seconds of the Seventh Symphony and compare it to the final sixty seconds of the Fifth. The Fifth Symphony wraps up with about 40 seconds of overly dramatic and overly triumphant major chords. The Seventh? Well, it just ends--actually kind of abruptly--with no fanfare at all.

Have a listen and see what you think!