Posts Tagged ‘classical’
19 Jan

Week 245: “The Miller and the Brook” by Franz Schubert



Classical composers were dying young way before rock stars made it cool.

Mozart famously (and mysteriously) died at 35. Italian comic opera legend Pergolesi succumbed to tuberculosis at only 26. The Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu died the day after his 24th birthday. But of all the composers who checked out too early, Schubert is my favourite.

Although he barely made it past 30, he is credited with over 1000 compositions. One thousand. I’m not sure if I’ve even sneezed a thousand times in my life, and yet here’s Schubert, putting together consistently gorgeous and powerful music as easily as if he were scrambling eggs. When asked to explain his prodigious output, he explained quite matter-of-factly: “When I finish something, I just move on to the next thing.”

The story told in his song cycle, “The Maid of the Mill”, is based on a series of poems by Wilhelm Muller. The poems follow a young miller as he wanders through the countryside. He finds a stream, follows it to a mill, falls in love with a girl who lives there, realizes she doesn’t love him, and then drowns himself in the same stream that led him there in the first place. So yeah, heartwarming stuff.

This particular piece is the second-last song of the cycle, and in my opinion, it’s one of the most powerfully, darkly poetic pieces of Schubert’s powerful, darkly poetic, 19th-century rock star life.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Like a tormented lover, it floats easily but unpredictably from major to minor.

2. Like a rock star, it has its ups and downs, flowing fluidly from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.

3. Like a poet, it’s fairly restrained volume-wise, rarely raising its voice above an apologetic mezzo-forte.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting in touch with your inner rock star.

10 Nov

Week 235: “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger



I’ve got nothing against parties, nightclubs, pub crawls, or any event that involves a lot of people staying up until the sun rises. But as great as those things are, there is something equally and oppositely great about an evening spent alone at home. Especially when you plan it well in advance.

You know exactly which movie you’re going to download. You know exactly what kind of food you’re going to have delivered. You know exactly what type of drink you’re going to enjoy while you soak in the bath. You know that you’ll probably be asleep embarrassingly early, but you don’t care.

But most importantly, you know that within minutes of getting home, you will be in your pyjamas while everyone else worries about what they’re going to wear when they go out tonight.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The nice crunchy moment at 0:56, followed by a big high note in the sopranos a few seconds later. This is the sound of you stretching as you walk through the front door.

2. The way the voices keep echoing each other, like they do on the words “O bleib bei uns” starting at 1:52. This is the sound of your socks being thrown in slow-motion towards the laundry hamper.

3. The way Rheinberger keeps throwing cadences that don’t quite resolve, like the one at 2:56. This is the sound your eyes make as they almost close for the night, only to pop lazily back open to try and get through the movie you’re watching.

Recommended listening activity:

Politely declining an invitation to a night out.

08 Sep

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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


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.

01 Oct

Week 125: “Symphony #5, Third Movement” by Dmitry Shostakovich


I would love to tell you that I discovered this piece because I was researching Shostakovich’s life. I would love to say that I was curious about the rumour that some of his music, composed during Stalin’s reign of terror, contained secretly coded anti-government sentiment. Or that I knew that many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were imprisoned and killed in the years before he wrote his fifth symphony, and I was wondering if it contained any anti-Stalin messages, so I studied it intensely for months in a University library.

Unfortunately, the real story of how I found out about this piece is far less intellectual: I was browsing a cardboard box filled with records at a garage sale. I saw the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie I’d never heard of and thought it looked cool, so I bought it for $1.50.

The movie, it turned out, was “Rollerball”. I watched it, and it’s awesome in the way that only 1970s sci-fi can be awesome. In the future, apparently, everyone will be dressed entirely in brown and orange, and computers will be small enough to fit in a single room. But at least we’ll listen to good music; Andre Previn did some great arrangements of classical pieces for the soundtrack, including this one. The movie, along with its soundtrack, was released in 1975. (Funnily enough, the year after Shostakovich died.)

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strings are amazing. They soar and pulse and roll and sing and fade.

2. From the midst of all the soaring and pulsing, the harp and flutes poke their heads out at 3:32.

3. It’s unpredictable, but still melodic. A lot of 20th-century composers tried to veer away from the conventional patterns of earlier music. I like that Shostakovich’s music does that without being too atonal.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching figure skating with the volume on mute.

16 Jul

Week 114: “Orchestral Suite #3 in D, Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach


This is one of those pieces of music that everybody knows. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, owned an album of “Relaxation Music”, or watched footage of hot-air balloons, you have heard this song. But no matter how many times you’ve heard it, this one deserves a close listen.

The first time I really listened to this song was in university, while taking a course called, and I’m not joking here, “Listening to Music”. You can imagine how a course with a name like that might appeal to a 20-year-old with a severe allergy to hard work. There was no textbook to purchase, just a set of 6 CDs that contained all the music deemed worthy of analysis. I took home the stack of digitized course material, put on some headphones, sat on my ratty old couch, and listened, skipping straight to Bach.

I remember coming to the conclusion, then and there, that this piece was the most beautiful, most perfect combination of notes ever assembled, and that Bach was the uncontested champion of musical genius. Years later, it’s still a conclusion I find difficult to dispute, and it’s still a piece I love to hear.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s impossible to get it wrong. In 1902, this became the first piece of Bach’s music to ever be recorded, and in the 110 years since, it must have been recorded literally thousands of times…and yet I have never heard a bad recording of it, no matter what the instrumentation, the tempo, or sublte variations in performance. It’s as if the notes won’t let themselves be played badly.

2. The way each phrase slowly builds and subsides, like a boat bobbing on the ocean.

3. The way some notes are held for just a bit longer than expected, creating just the slightest bit of tension between the different instruments.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining yourself rolling down a mountain of pillows in slow-motion.

30 Apr

Week 103: “Symphony No. 9, II: Largo” by Antonin Dvorak



At some point, as the 1800s became the 1900s, the lion’s share of the world’s power, wealth, and culture creation shifted from Europe to North America. It’s impossible to say exactly when this happened, and of course it was probably a series of events rather than a single moment. But for the sake of making a point, I’m going to say that it happened in 1893.

1893 was already promising to be a breakout year for the United States; the Chicago World’s Fair was a showcase for American ingenuity, giving the world the Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, and some of the first functioning electric lights. Clearly, the 20th century was shaping up to be a century in which most of the world’s breakthroughs would happen west of the Atlantic.

Providing a soundtrack to this power shift was Antonin Dvorak, who, having moved to the US from Prague, premiered his legendary “New World Symphony” at Carnegie Hall in December of that year.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords. Grand, ominous, powerful. For the first 30 seconds of this piece, I like to imagine the sun rising on the horizon, wearing sunglasses and an expression that says, “That’s right. I’m the sun.”

2. The melody. Having opened so grandly, the melody that follows on the clarinet is sweet and gentle. Dvorak was a huge fan of folk music, and much of this symphony was based on African-American spirituals that he heard during his time in the states. He famously (and controversially) said he was “convinced that the future of music in this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.” The following 100 years of American music would seem to prove him right.

3. The closing chords. Having climbed to a squeaky high note in the final minute, the closing chords are played exclusively on the low strings, and if your spine doesn’t tingle when you hear them, your spine might be missing.

Recommended listening activity:

Going home.

02 Apr

Week 99: “Miserere Mei” by Gregorio Allegri


Along with years of piano lessons, the experience that really fixed music as an important part of my life was being in a choir. It was a church choir, and I enjoyed it immensely, even though I was never really religious (the only time I remember praying was when I lost my brand new baseball glove and declared privately that I was prepared to go to church for the rest of my life if God would be so kind as to let me have it back).

There were no girls in the choir, which made it much less complicated for me, as I couldn’t figure out how to talk and breathe simultaneously in front of girls, much less sing in front of one. There was a nice friendship between the boys; it was a bit like being in Boy Scouts, except that instead of tying knots and building fires, we were singing choral music. (And, occasionally, building fires.)

But the main reason for the men & boys choir is the sound it creates. There’s a purity to the men & boys sound that can’t be produced otherwise, and in no other piece of music is this as evident as it is in Gregorio Allegri’s famous “Miserere”, performed in churches around the world at this time of year.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chanting. Inserted between each verse, it gives the piece a middle-agey feel, despite the fact that it was written during the Baroque period.

2. The solo. When I was a choirboy, this piece was the Super Bowl of the choir calendar. And if you got the solo, with its incredible top C, you were the MVP. Funnily enough, I’ve heard that the top C wasn’t in the original score, but came into being as a result of a copyist’s error in the 1800s.

3. The harmonies. Although the soprano solo with its top C is exciting, each vocal line is beautiful in its own way. I wouldn’t use “haunting” or “mysterious” to describe many songs, but this one fits. The mystery was, for the first few centuries of the song’s existence, intentional, as the Vatican prohibited copies from being made, on threat of excommunication. The first unauthorized copy, apparently, was made in 1770 by a 14-year-old named Wolfgang Mozart, who heard the piece twice, imprinted it on his memory, and wrote it out later.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting by a stained-glass window late in the afternoon.

12 Dec

Week 83: “Sonata VII” by Johann Rosenmuller


A lot of people find baroque music to be a bit showy, a bit too fancy for its own good. But you don’t need to be wearing a powdered wig to appreciate this wonderful piece by Johann Rosenmuller.

In the musical history books, Rosenmuller is a overshadowed by Baroque powerhouses Bach and Handel. In his own time, he didn’t fare much better: he held a promising job at a church in Leipzig, but his career was thrown off the rails when he was imprisoned for homosexual activities in 1655. He fled to Italy and didn’t return to his homeland until just before his death. Meanwhile, the promising job he had once held in Leipzig before his imprisonment had been filled by a young man named…Johann Sebastian Bach.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the strings creep upwards at the beginning…

2. …and then creep downwards at 1:33. The slow chromatic rise and fall gives the song a lot of emotional weight.

3. After sliding around chromatically for the first three minutes, the chords abruptly begin giving us dramatic pauses and cadences. The last cadence, especially, takes several seconds to resolve, before ending on a heartwarming major chord.

Recommended listening activity:

Breathing on a window, using your finger to write the name of the person you secretly like, and then immediately erasing it.

17 Oct

Week 75: “Chopin Prelude” by Jim Perkins



One of the best things about the internet is its ability to help you find things you didn’t know you were looking for.

I was thinking that it was about time I added something by Chopin to this list. I figured his famous Prelude in E minor was suitably beautiful, but I didn’t own a recording of it. So off I went to the internet to find a good recording somewhere.  But, as so often happens on the internet, one tangent led to another, and before I knew what had happened, I had forgotten about Frederic Chopin, and was instead reading about someone named Jim Perkins.

Perkins is a British composer who, like many modern musicians, combines classical training with modern technology, bridging the gap between Amadeus and algorithms. His music is fairly experimental, and at times can be a bit glitchy and choppy; if that’s not your thing, it can get difficult to listen to after a while. But in this particular song, I find the choppiness (and the Chopin-ness) to be hypnotic.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The use of stereo. If you can, you should listen to this song on headphones. Recognizable fragments of the original piece pop up here and there, panning from left to right, jumping octaves…it’s like someone took Chopin’s sheet music and made confetti out of it.

2. The not-quite percussion. At 1:30 there’s the faintest hint of a shaker or a tambourine way back in the mix, and because so much of the quick edits hint at 16th notes, you almost expect the song to break out into full-on rave-style beats. I’m glad it doesn’t.

3. The non-cadence ending. Chopin’s original ends with a grand and ominous minor cadence. But here, after hinting at some kind of resolution for a while, Perkins leaves us hanging.

Recommended listening activity:

Standing under a tree while it sheds its leaves.

22 Aug

Week 67: “Gymnopédie #1″ by Erik Satie


Erik Satie was a tragically romantic figure.

For starters, he lived in Paris in the late 1800s. This was a time when poets roamed free in the streets, the smell of croissants filled the air, and the paint was still drying on the Eiffel Tower. But what makes him more interesting than my possibly flawed understanding of turn-of-the-century France is his tortured love life.

Satie had been solitary most of his life, until his late twenties, when he met Suzanne Valadon. She was an accomplished painter, the first woman ever admitted to the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also quite striking, having modeled for many famous French painters of the day, including Renoir. (And, if you believe some accounts, she may have done more than just pose for Renoir.)

After their first night together, Satie was hopelessly in love with Valadon, and proposed to her. She, however, turned him down, and their initially heated affair lapsed back into friendship. He remained obsessed with her, and for her part, Valadon didn’t do much to cool him down: she moved across the street from him, and even painted his portrait and gave it to him as a gift. (I can almost see it… “Here’s a painting of you that I did. But I think we should just be friends. Okay, well I guess I’ll just go home, right across the street where you can pine over me from afar. See ya!”)

Eventually, she moved away, and Satie drank himself to death, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1925. He never got over Valadon, and was quoted as saying that her departure left him with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The pianist’s left hand, which alternates between the tonic and the fourth of the scale. I don’t know what it is about that interval, but it gives an immediate sense of relaxation, as if the piano is letting out a tired sigh.

2. It’s just a bit moody. The way the piece begins makes you think it won’t stray very far, but the occasional tangents into the relative minor give it more substance.

3. It ends on an unexpected and slightly unsatisfying half-cadence. If there is such a thing as a half-cadence. It’s a bit frustrating, but once you know Satie’s romantic history, you can forgive him for it.

Recommended listening activity:

Repeatedly writing your name in cursive.

24 Jan

Week 37: “Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 49″ by Dmitry Kabalevsky


I think that some instruments were created for a specific purpose. The electric guitar, for example, was invented so that teen angst could be given a soundtrack. The slide whistle was invented to make sad clowns funny. And the bagpipes were invented as a weapon to drive the English out of Scotland, screaming and clasping their hands over their ears.

The cello, meanwhile, was invented so that people would know what beautiful sounds like, and Kabalevsky puts the instrument to good use in this piece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The shifts from major to minor. Considering that he was the son of a mathematician, and a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Kabalevsky wrote some amazingly emotional music.

2. The oboe echoing the cello. It took a few listens for me to notice this, and I’m not sure why; picking out an oboe in a sea of string instruments should be as easy as finding your own belly-button. But once I noticed it (the oboe, that is), I loved it.

3. The cello by itself, beginning at 3:07. After a particularly victorious-sounding section, the orchestra slips away, leaving the cello to fend for itself. On this particular recording, the cellist is Yo-Yo Ma, who, when not hanging out with his buddy Bobby McFerrin, does a pretty good fending for himself. Notice that the major-minor thing happens again, in pizzicato form, at 4:06.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking a nap under a sheet that’s just come out of the dryer.