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Posts Tagged ‘classical’
08 Sep

Week 226: “Waltz #1” by Elliott Smith (as covered by Christopher O’Riley)

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I’m usually a bit wary of tribute albums. Tribute albums are the musical equivalent of mandatory staff meetings at work: there are too many of them, and they rarely offer any new information.

My wariness level is even higher if the tribute album in question is paying homage to a recently-dead artist. It’s very tempting to write it off as opportunism. Aren’t you supposed to eulogize someone in your own words? With your own songs? Do we need new versions of classics anyway?

But I don’t get those pessimistic feelings with “Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute”. Pianist Christopher O’Riley doesn’t try to do too much, or add excessive orchestration. His versions of Smith’s songs are simple piano renditions, subtly different but still recognizable. I probably wouldn’t listen to the album all day, but his version of Waltz #1 is perfect.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. O’Riley layers the piano parts in the same way that Smith used to layer his vocals.

2. The notes repeatedly glide up the scale in a way that reminds me of (don’t ask me why) empty ski lifts going up a hill.

3. The chord changes at 2:36 are unexpected and wonderful.

Recommended listening activity:

Framing your favourite photo of you and your best friend.

28 Jul

Week 220: “Liebst Du Um Schonheit” by Clara Schumann

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Clara Wieck’s father Friedrich decided that she was going to be a musician well before she was old enough to make the decision for herself. He gave her music lessons using methods he had developed himself, and he managed her career down to the smallest detail. He was like Steffi Graf’s dad, 250 years earlier.

When she was eight, she played at a recital in Leipzig, where a teenager named Robert Schumann was blown away by her skill. He decided to quit law school so that he could take music lessons with Friedrich Wieck. He moved in with the family, and became part of the family. Too much a part of the family, as far as Friedrich Wieck was concerned.

13 years later, despite her father’s disapproval, Clara and Robert were married. In the year following their marriage, Clara wrote this piece for her husband. The words are by the poet Ruckert, whose first name, funnily enough, is Friedrich.

Robert Schumann’s life ended too early and too tragically, but Clara’s career spanned 61 years, and she was one of the most celebrated performers of her time. But beyond that, her skills as a composer remain vastly underrated to this day.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening piano lines. They remind me of the wave-like sound of the opening bars of this piece by Debussy.

2. The fact that it’s a duet. Mahler’s setting of the same text is nice, and richly orchestrated. But the simplicity of piano and voice make it seem more honest somehow.

3. The lyrics. Read them here. A simple but profound take on love.

Recommended listening activity:

A picnic for two with take-out fish and chips.

02 Jun

Week 212: “Prelude #1″ by Charles-Valentin Alkan

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Alkan was a piano superstar in Paris at the same time as his good friends Liszt and Chopin, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same lasting fame as his two contemporaries. It might be because a lot of his music is difficult to play, and some of it pretty much impossible to play unless you have forty fingers.

But every once in a while, Alkan would come down from his caffeine high and put together a piece of beautiful simplicity, such as this brief but expressive prelude.

This is the first of the 25 Preludes in his Op. 31 from 1844. Usually, composers would write 24 preludes in a set; one for each major and minor key. Alkan had to go one better and make 25. His set of preludes begins with this one (in C major), and ends with an equally beautiful one, also in C major. They make great bookends for a spring day.

One day I’ll make the time to listen to all 25 in one sitting, but for now I’m happy to start my day with a cup of tea and Prelude #1.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It really feels like the start of something. The way the left hand spends so much time on the same note in the first few bars gives it a sense of beginning.

2. One minute in, it jumps into a minor key and kicks up the volume a bit. It’s like a reminder not to fall asleep…after all, you’ve got 24 more preludes to get through.

3. It’s simple enough that the average living-room piano player could learn it.

Recommended listening activity:

Opening all the windows in your house first thing in the morning.

07 Apr

Week 204: “Sarah’s Song” by David Downing

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According to a friend of mine who has spent most of his time around classical musicians, different instruments in the orchestra attract different personality types.

Violinists tend to be temperamental. Bassoon players are quirky and intellectual. Percussionists are good dads. Trombone players are sweet but depressed. Oboists are suicidally uptight. Trumpet players are egotistical. Tuba players are egotistical too, but also chubby.

And then there are the cellists. These are the charmers. The sexy ones. Real stylish.

Like most stereotypes, these characterizations probably aren’t entirely accurate, but if there’s any truth to the cellist personality, then David Downing must be pretty popular with the ladies, because he’s quite the cellist.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. David Downing does with the cello what Bobby McFerrin does with his voice, using all the sounds and textures and tones the cello has to offer, creating an orchestra out of one instrument.

2. The delay at 1:58. If U2 had a cellist, it would sound like this.

3. The whole song has a very suave feel to it. I don’t know who Sarah is, but she’s probably the envy of all her friends.

Recommended listening activity:

Ordering food at a French restaurant…in perfect French.

24 Feb

Week 198: Serenade from “The Snowman” by Erich Korngold

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I made a snowman when I was about 11 years old that I was very proud of. My pride stemmed primarily from the fact that I had built it alone. No help from dad or older brother. This was all me.

It was a sight to behold: carrot nose, arms made of freakishly bent tree limbs, three semi-spherical body sections, flecked with bits of grass and dirt from the earth underneath the snow. Okay, it was mostly hideous, but I was 11, so I was pretty pleased with myself.

If I had known that Austrian composer Erich Korngold had written an entire ballet at age 11, I might have been forced to revise my pride level somewhat. His ballet was called “The Snowman”, and upon its opening, he was a child prodigy who seemed destined for greatness.

Korngold is mostly remembered now as a pioneer in film scores. His 1938 soundtrack to The Adventures of Robin Hood won an Academy Award, and he cranked out many more during his time in Hollywood. However, it seems like he got tired of film scores. He stopped writing them in 1946, and returned to composing the romantic style of music he had worked on before leaving Austria.

Unfortunately, by the late 1940s that style was no longer popular, and in the years following his death in 1957, critics tended to greet Korngold’s work with a bit of a shrug, which I think is pretty sad. Rewind to 1910, when composers like Strauss and Mahler were praising the 12-year-old as the next big thing, and his ballet The Snowman was being performed for the Austrian Emperor…it doesn’t seem fair that his career should be looked upon as if it were one of my pathetically deformed snowmen.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The tempo is flexible, which gives the music a sense of motion. You can see how his style was so perfectly suited to the newly emerging medium of film.

2. The way the violin climbs and shivers, beginning at 1:40.

3. The final seconds, with the violin way up high, and the piano way down low, like opposite ends of a snowman.

Recommended listening activity:

Digging through a box of things you made as a kid, and picking out something to put on the fridge.

13 Jan

Week 192: “Nocturne no. 10″ by John Field

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Of all the composers who wrote nocturnes, the most overlooked is probably John Field. Which is a little unfair, considering he invented it.

The nocturne is typically a short piece for solo piano, calm and soothing, and meant to evoke the night. In the 19th century, the nocturne was extremely popular, especially among French composers. Debussy, Chopin, Satie, Fauré, and Bizet are among the night-obsessed Frenchmen who capitalized on the trend. But it is John Field, an Irishman, who is usually cited as having come up with the nocturne.

Although the names of the composers he inspired are more recognizable than his own today, back in the early 1800s he was extremely famous, both as a composer and performer. In fact, his career followed a path usually associated with modern pop stars; wealth and fame, followed by infidelity, substance abuse, and eventually a painful and premature death brought on by an overly extravagant lifestyle.

But for all his hard living, his nocturnes are things of subtle, gracious beauty. Maybe his love of nightlife is what drove him to create a style associated with the night. Franz Liszt, another of the many composers influenced by Field, described the Irishman’s nocturnes as “…half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy.”

And that just about sums it up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Little unexpected dissonances, like the one only 5 seconds in, add a touch of uneasiness.

2. Little major cadences, like the one at the 1-minute mark, add a touch of hopefulness.

3. At 2:33 you can hear one of the “half-formed sighs floating through the air” that Liszt was talking about.

Recommended listening activity:

Being nocturnal.

26 Aug

Week 172: “Symphony #1 in E flat major, Op. 28 – 3. Quasi Fantasia (Grave)” by Max Bruch

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As well as looking strikingly similar to the cover art of an Iron & Wine album, Max Bruch is also one of the 19th century’s most underrated composers.

I’m not sure why this happens with classical music. Maybe it’s a supply-and-demand thing. There are five or six composers who are universally recognized as geniuses, and whose work is performed daily in venues around the world. Others are remembered as one-hit wonders, known only for their most boring piece, while still others are barely performed.

In Bruch’s case, it might be that the musical landscape was shifting dramatically as he neared the end of his life. Composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky were shaking things up, while Bruch was quietly working within the borders of a style that had run its course over the previous decades. Maybe Bruch’s work started feeling stale and irrelevant as the abstract and expressionist movements of 20th century art made everything else seem irrelevant.

Whatever the case, if you happen to have an orchestra at your disposal, I urge you to help bring back Bruch. Start throwing in his pieces between crowd-pleasing numbers by Bach and Mozart. Have a concert celebrating bearded composers, featuring Max’s orchestral pieces. Do a flash-mob performance of his work in the middle of rush hour. Call it “Bruchfast of Champions”. Let’s introduce Max to the 21st century.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The first minute is super majestic. If I ever emerge from an ocean wearing a cape (and I’m not sure why I would be doing such a thing, but anyway) I would like this minute of music to be playing as it happens.

2. Several of the big cadences, like the one at 3:45, don’t resolve quite as soon as you’d expect them to.

3. He uses the timpani sparingly. No disrespect to Handel, but big percussion loses its effect if you overuse it. When Bruch uses it, he means it.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a brand new camera to take pictures of a really old camera.

17 Jun

Week 162: “The Death Of Ase” by Edvard Grieg

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Most of the time, procrastination is a bad thing. But I’d like to suggest that it’s not always a bad thing, and that sometimes it might actually be a good thing.

It all depends on how you procrastinate.

If you adopt the “YouTube rabbit hole” method, you’re doing it wrong. You’ll end up eating Wheat Thins at 3:48am, wondering how you became so interested in cat videos.

But if you procrastinate by doing something that is extremely different from your normal routine, completely unrelated to the task you’re trying to avoid, the results might surprise you. If you go to the library and grab a book at random, or go see a movie that you are absolutely sure you will hate, or eat at that place around the corner that you always pass but never enter…one simple decision to do something out of your ordinary might lead to something good.

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is a good example of this. After a few years of reasonable but not earth-shattering success, he decided to do something different. He broke out of his normal routine. By moving to Italy.

During his self-imposed exile from his homeland, he wrote the two plays that would launch him to worldwide fame; Brand and Peer Gynt. So while I’m not trying to imply that Ibsen was a procrastinator, he certainly knew how use a change in routine to spark his creativity. So perhaps he was an effective procrastinator.

Appropriately, the play Peer Gynt features a main character legendary for his procrastination. It also features a legendary soundtrack by Ibsen’s countryman Edvard Grieg. The soundtrack is filled with songs that even non-classical fans are familiar with (like this one and this one), but my favourite is “The Death Of Ase”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The slow, climbing chords that open the piece.

2. The same pattern one minute later, but a fifth higher.

3. The same pattern in reverse, creeping downwards chromatically about three minutes in. I don’t know if Grieg meant these sequences to represent Ase’s last breath, or an ascent to heaven, but they’re chill-inducers.

Recommended listening activity:

Something else.

25 Mar

Week 150: “O Vos Omnes” by Tomas Luis De Victoria

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Polyphony used to be considered offensive.

It’s hard to imagine how two people singing different notes could possibly offend anyone, but there was a time when the Catholic Church decreed that anything other than Gregorian chant, or plainsong, was unsuitable. Pope John XXII had this to say about composers who used harmony:

“These composers…cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere.” (From Teachings of the Holy Father, 1324)

With this in mind, songs like “O Vos Omnes” seem as rebellious as anything London produced during the peak of punk. So put on some ripped jeans, gel your hair into a mohawk, give yourself a “Palestrina 4 Life” tattoo, and enjoy this wonderful piece of polyphony by Tomas Luis De Victoria.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Often, a line begins with a single note, allowing the harmony to grow around it, and accentuating the polyphony.

2. At 1:48, most of the choir drops out, leaving just three voices.

3. It spends so much time avoiding thirds, that when it becomes decisively major or minor, it’s always a surprise.

Recommended listening activity:

Seeing the sign, but walking on the grass anyway.

28 Jan

Week 142: “Lacrimosa” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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Mozart’s death has spawned more theories than probably any other event in the history of music.

Depending on whom you choose to believe, Mozart may have died from poison, a streptococcal infection, kidney stones, rheumatic fever, a subdural hematoma, malpractice on the part of his doctor, or self-medicating an illness that didn’t exist.

But no matter whether you think it was Salieri on the grassy knoll or simply the common cold, you’ve got to think he died too young. At 35, he had survived the transition from child prodigy to fully-grown superstar, and some of his later work is considered by many to be his strongest. His legendary Requiem, which he had barely begun when he died, remains as mysterious as his death. How much of it was finished when he died? Did he write it because he foresaw his own death? Who completed it once he was gone, and which sections did they write?  All these things add to the mystique of what is, by any measure, a beautiful piece of music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening bars (which may be the only section actually written by Mozart) give the feeling that something ominous is coming. If there was a soundtrack to the grim reaper tip-toeing, this would be it.

2. There’s a quiet, major-key section around 1:40 that’s like a fake-out sequence at the end of a horror movie, when it seems like everything is going to be okay. But by 2:10 we’re back to the minor key, and the grim reaper is back.

3. It ends with a big, wonderful “Amen” that the orchestra holds for as long as it can before the choir runs out of breath.

Recommended listening activity:

Dusting off the Ouija board.