This last week I started an internship at KUSC, the classical radio station for the Los Angeles area. Currently I’m writing content for their apps Soundsnips, WorldVenues, and Geotunes (an app with Spotify).
Soundsnips which lets you listen to great music and then gives you some info about the music and it’s composer while you’re listening. WorldVenues is a great little encyclopedia about various concert halls around the world which pictures and video. Geotunes is like geocaching with music showing different music written for different locations.
It’s been great! I get to read and write about classical music all day and work with great people. The work I’ve done so far won’t be available until we do an update, which we’ll do soon. Until then, go ahead and download these and see what you think. You can also download KUSC’s regular app.
That’s one bit of news. I also got a car! More news might come later.
It’s time to start writing about composers who are still alive and writing today. We love dead composers (oh dear, that sounds like a threat), but there’s something significant about listening to works by people living in the same world we are. The work of artists throughout the ages becomes a mirror for the times they are living in. It’s interesting to see what we can learn about our own civilizations by studying contemporary works.
Now before you stop reading and run away screaming I would like to point out a few things about modern music. Music generally written after 1950 gets a bad reputation based on music written before 1950. When people hear the term “20th Century music,” they think of the serialism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (definitely not music you’d play in the car on a hot date).
Many people equate modern music with music that is “complicated,” “directionless” and, of course, “ugly.” The music I’m going to write about is actually none of these things. This music is meant to be simple, moving, and quite beautiful. This is music written by composers that are often called “holy minimalists.”
John Tavener (b. 1944)
The term minimalism (in a very summed up version) basically refers to music that is written for or with limited means. Limited melody, harmony, rhythm, ranges, text or instrumentation. This style of music has been quite popular in the last little while especially with composers from Eastern Europe and those associated with the Orthodox faith. Some examples have been Arvo Pärt (pehrt) from Estonia, Henryk Górecki (gor-et-ski) from Poland, and John Tavener from England. A great example of minimalism used in sacred music is with John Tavener’s setting of a William Blake poem “The Lamb.” A very simple setting with little material becomes an incredibly moving expression of faith.
This brings up the question, why would anyone want to create a work of art with limitations? It comes from the idea that less is more. Rather that looking at it as a set of limitations, it’s more about enjoying simplicity. Let’s consider this idea by looking at interior design. Here are pictures of two different dining rooms, one in the Rococo style of the 18th Century and the other in a modern minimalist style.
While both are beautiful, they couldn’t be more different. Many minimalists make their case for simplicity and limitations by looking at the rococo dining room say that it gets much too busy. There’s too much going on, the eye is constantly moving around the room examining the various ornamentations and not given the opportunity to rest. On the other hand, the minimalist room offers less and allows the eye to rest on fewer decorations. There is something to be said about the clean lines and smooth surfaces offered by minimalist interior design. Composers will argue that the same thing happens to the ear as it does the eye.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Going back to music, there’s also something to be said about laying a foundation of simplicity paving the way for much bigger forces being saved for a specific effect. Coldplay does this in their song “Fix You.” The reason I listen to this song is that moment at 3:02 when the band explodes into the climax. Everything before that leads up to that moment but it’s pretty subdued with just a few instruments and Chris Martin’s voice. It’s not the most exciting, but the climax wouldn’t make sense without it.
It’s the same in Arvo Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis.” Arvo Pärt is a composer from Estonia who has become one of the great living composers today because of his use of minimalism. He writes in many different genres including sacred music for the Orthodox faith. This piece, “Nunc dimittis,” comes from the Vespers portion of the liturgy and are the words of Simeon after he has seen the infant Jesus at the temple.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
The first 4 minutes are all a very subdued foundation. This of course expounds the idea of a man who is finally at peace and ready to lay down his life. At 4:03 the piece takes a new direction at the words “Which thou hast prepared,” leading to 4:43 where the choir explodes at the word “lumen” or “light.” The way that Pärt writes this section makes you feel as if you’re seeing light for the very first time, the same way that Simeon might have felt seeing the infant Christ for the first time.
Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)
Another great composer who often writes in a simpler, minimalist style is that of Henryk Górecki from Poland. Górecki’s third symphony, often called the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” has often been referred to as his masterpiece. While it’s not a sacred piece, nor meant for worship services, it uses sacred texts associated with the virgin Mary in the context of suffering, agony, and lamentation. It relates the suffering of Mary weeping at the cross of Jesus with the suffering of holocaust victims in Poland. The second movement uses a four line poem written by an 18 girl on the walls of a Nazi concentration camp. It’s written for orchestra and soprano, but it’s not a very complicated piece. Very simple and accessible music, but highly expressive. While the sound of the video isn’t the best, I love the performance and images associated with this music and felt it was as important as the music.
A final example of sacred minimalist music is found in John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” While Tavener wrote this for a friend of his who passed away it was made most famous when it was performed at the funeral service of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey. The text is taken from Shakespeare as well as the Orthodox funeral service. This recording by the Sixteen.
Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Alleluia. Remember me O lord, when you come into your kingdom. Alleluia. Give rest O Lord to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep. Alleluia. The choir of saints have found the well-spring of life, and door of paradise. Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream. Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Alleluia.
Remember, if you like what you heard, share it with someone else.
I’ve been an interim director this last semester for an early music choir here called Schola Cantorum Occidentalis (Singing School of the West . . . or SCO for short). The director is a chemistry professor at BYU and on sabbatical at John Hopkin University in Baltimore. It was great to work with such an outstanding ensemble focused on early music. I think we’re the only early music ensemble in the Utah Valley. We just had a concert last night celebrating a newly build sanctuary at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Orem. The acoustic was very reverberant, which is ideal for Renaissance music. It was an incredible experience.
We decided to tailor our program to this specific circumstance. We started looking for music celebrating St. Francis, the previous events of Holy Week and their rather large Hispanic community. We put together what we thought was a fitting and appropriate program:
To Open Hosanna to the Son of David – Thomas Weelkes (1575-1623)
The Faith of St. Francis I Sive vigilem – William Mundy (1528-1591) Beatus et sanctus – William Mundy
The Columbus Connection Pueri haebraeorum – Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) Vere languores – Tomas Luis de Victoria Credo quod Redemptor – Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) Canite tuba – Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)
The Faith of St. Francis II Proles de caelo – Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) Illumina le tenebrae – Joan Szymko (b. 1957)
SCO sang so beautifully last night, I was so proud of all they’ve done. All this with only 2 hours a week, and this isn’t easy music! We were also very pleased with the turnout for the concert. I was seriously only expecting 30 people but instead we got about 300.
After the concert was over I had an experience I’ve never had before that’s still on my mind. As we finished our program, took our bows and walked back to our pews I went to shake the hand of the priest. As I thanked him for letting us perform in his church I couldn’t help but notice that his face was beaming and his eyes were dancing with light. I was really struck by it. But it didn’t stop there, because every person who came up afterwards was the exact same way. Friends I’ve known for a while, friends I’ve only made recently, and complete strangers all came up afterwards with their faces and eyes filled with light.
These people had drastically different backgrounds. Some people I knew had been exposed to Renaissance music before and loved it, but others I knew had no exposure or didn’t really care for it (bless them for coming). Young and old. They all shared the same glow. I’ve never really seen anything like this before. There’s something about this music when you hear it in person in a space like St. Francis. It reminds me of the time when I first heard The Sixteen in The Royal Navel College Chapel in Greenwich. There’s never a dull moment and you can’t help but be transported.
What a beautiful evening. A HUGE thank you to SCO, everyone at St. Francis (especially Dr. Boerio-Goates), and everyone who came.
All right, let’s make sure we got everything we need to talk about our composers today.
Tight pants – check
Big hair – check
Lots of makeup – check
Face-melting solos – check
Yup, we’re ready to talk about Handel and his contemporaries. Oh wait, were you thinking about someone else?
You might be a bit confused, because this checklist sounds like something you’d use to describe glam metal – sometime called hair metal – bands that dominated popular music during the 1980s (as opposed to the 1680s or whatever). In reality these two different genres of music, centuries apart, actually have a fair amount in common. For a while, music becomes all about the viturosi, the solos, the stars.
Compare this improvisational guitar solo from Poison’s CC Deville to a violin solo from Vivaldi’s concerto Spring (from The Seasons).
Separated at birth? This is only a small sampling of some of the similarities between these two genres, but I’ll leave the greater details to someone else (with more time). The point is, if you like glam metal (and the like), you might also enjoy the music of Handel and his posse.
Moving on, we’re going to look over the music of Handel mostly but have one or two other people’s music as well just to see in context what is happening here. Handel was actually born in the same year as the other great German Baroque composer of the time: Johann Sebastian Bach (sadly, they never met). Handel was born into a family that was rather indifferent to music. When his father noticed he had an interest and talent in music he did what all great dads do and decided to have a household ban on instruments. That didn’t stop little George from sneaking a clavichord up to the attic. Later, Handel and his brother would convince their father to let them have proper musical training. There is hope for people out there who want to pursue music in less-than-supportive families.
His father – obviously still not very supportive – decided to send Handel off to Italy to study law (dad-of-the-year candidate right here). Lucky for Handel, Italy was brimming with music and also happened to be the cradle of the most popular music of the day: opera. After a while, Handel couldn’t resist the music around him; He was like a little kid in a candy store. He took some music jobs and started to write music, including opera. Unlucky for Handel, the Catholic church soon banned opera productions throughout much of Italy.
At this point we see Handel’s tenacity and ability to adapt and thrive in hard situations. Instead of being defeated and letting their most prized form of music die, they decided to start writing oratorios – un-staged dramatic works, basically everything that an opera is musically without staging, costumes, sets and acting (but that last one is hard to find in most operas anyway). A great example of an oratorio during this time period is Il Trionfo Della Castità (The Triumph of Chastity) by Italian composer Antonio Caldara.
Handel really caught on to this and wrote some brilliant pieces. He also wrote dramatic settings of the Bible that are very operatic in their nature. From this genre comes one of his most difficult works: Dixit Dominus (a setting of Psalm 110).
Handel soon left Italy to return to Germany and take up a music job with the Elector of Hanover, George. For some reason, Handel went on a trip to London, like it so much that he requested to go again and never returned to Hanover. The Elector of Hanover asked him to come back, but Handel just ignored him. Then Queen Anne of Great Britain died without children and for some odd reason the next person in line for the throne was Anne’s second cousin, George, Elector of Hanover (pfff . . . weird). So the elector becomes king and moves to London. Here’s where things get a bit “fictional.” Handel’s now afraid for his life having upset his old boss who is now the King of his new favorite country. In order for him to win the favor of his old boss (and maybe even get his old job back) Handel writes music to accompany the king’s boat ride on the Thames river (pronounced “tehmz”). In a well-choreographed moment, the king hears the music, likes it and then Handel shows up saying he wrote the music just for him and begs for his forgiveness, which the king grants.
My guess is that King George was just happy to see a familiar face from his mother country and excited that someone else in London actually spoke German. Neither Handel nor the king ever learned English very well. The music was probably written after the reconciliation to accompany the King’s boat rides on the Thames. True or not, it’s a good story with great music to match.
Handel became England greatest music import, but it wasn’t always the warmest reception. Handel tried introducing Italian opera to them, which the public liked for a while but then grew quite cold to it. Handel had a problem with money, he’d get lots of it and then spend it all and be left with nothing (like a true rock star). Looking for a way to get more income, Handel tried introducing oratorios to them, which for some reason the public liked much more. I don’t know why but while the Italians are settling for oratorios because their operas have been banned, the English actually preferred them. Handel had much more success writing oratorios and had some great pieces along the way – the most famous being Messiah. Just another example of Handel making the best out of a situation.
One of his secular oratorios has this fantastic number called “Myself I Shall Adore.” In this aria it’s all about the virtuosity of the singer, there is some back and forth between the singers and the orchestra, but it’s mostly about her and you’ll see why. Here’s a performance by Carolyn Sampson with Harry Christophers (of The Sixteen) conducting.
By 1727 Handel had become a naturalized British subject. Somehow, this illegal immigrant gained citizenship through amnesty (A bit of a sensitive topic today). By this time King George I (former Elector of Hanover) had died and his son George II was to be crowned as the new king. As part of the celebration, Handel was commissioned to write a set of anthems to accompany the coronation ceremony. Handel selected the text himself which included accounts from the Bible of the coronation of King Solomon. The goal of these pieces was to show parallels between Solomon’s coronation and that of the current monarch, convey the majesty of the crown and of Great Britain, as well as to blow the minds of everyone listening.
The most famous anthem is “Zadok the Priest,” which has been performed at every coronation in Great Britain since George II in 1727. It begins with a slow build up of anticipation, strings softly ascending in the same figure on different harmonies for a while. All this builds and builds to an explosion of sound with the choir singing “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoic’d and said: ‘God save the King! Long live the King! May the King live forever, Hallelujah, Amen.’” Listen for the tell-tale British pomp and circumstance but with the finest combination of music from Germany and Italy. It really is designed to knock your socks off. A lot like this excerpt from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” (I know it’s not 80s glam metal, but it still illustrates the point well.)
Here’s a fantastic performance by the Sixteen (although you’ll notice there’s a lot more than sixteen in this performance . . . long story) conducted by Harry Christophers.
Remember, if you liked something you read or heard, share it with someone else.
This is my first article in this series so I’m still getting used to figuring out how to organize and write what will help you get into this music. I hope you enjoy this and learn something from it. If you have any suggestions I would very much appreciate it.
It’s difficult to choose who goes first. Seriously, out of hundreds of years a music, where do you start? After thinking for a while, considering our purposes, I feel that it’s best to start with Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Let’s start with his name “Ralph.” He’s English, but strangely, it’s not pronounced like you think. It’s commonly pronounced “Rafe” (rhymes with safe) rather than “Ralph.” There are some that insist that it’s “Ralph,” but most people say “Rafe.” Go with the latter and you’ll be safe in mixed company.
Born into a fairly wealthy family in 1872, he studied music at Trinity College, Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music where he was a student of both Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Parry. I mention these two composers because they are at the forefront of the rebirth of great, domestic, English music. These two guys helped begin a new Renaissance and then turned around and taught the next generation of composers including Vaughan Williams and his friend Gustav Holst. Because of his teachers he’s mostly a romantic composer, but does venture and borrow impressionist styles and techniques while keeping his sound very “English.”
Anyway, moving along. Like I said, Vaughan Williams is quintessentially English. He loved English folk tunes which were beginning to die from their oral traditions at that time. He personally went out, collected and incorporated many of those tunes into his own music. One great examples is his arrangement of “Greensleeves” for orchestra. Listen for that old familiar melody.
Vaughan Williams was extremely talented at writing for strings orchestras. While the piano was challenging for him, he was very talented at the violin and it shows. He also studied with French composer Maurice Ravel, who is still considered one of the finest orchestrators in history. Vaughan Williams’ orchestrations are characterized by lush, warm colors mostly due to emphasizing the violas and cellos.
One of the best examples of his fantastic string writing is his “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” Tallis was also an English composer, but lived and worked in the royal chapel of Elizabeth I during the Renaissance. Tallis’ piece, “Why Fum’th in Fight,” has a haunting melody that I’m sure Vaughan Williams found irresistible. Vaughan Williams loved to take these old melodies from, as early as the 1500s, and set them in a romantic, heart-breaking way. Listen to Tallis’ original setting, then listen to Vaughan Williams’ intepretation.
One of the amazing things about Vaughan Williams was that he was good at writing for every kind of ensemble, not just orchestras. He wrote a great deal for choirs especially church choirs, which is a bit of a surprise considering that Vaughan Williams was agnostic. And still, he wrote very stirring and moving sacred music. He even took on a commission to create a new English Hymnal for the Church of England.
After a few years of fame Vaughan Williams voluntarily joined the army during World War I which would change his life forever. Fighting in the trenches disillusioned him from the “noble fight” he felt he signed up for. After returning to England, he worked to promote English nationalism through peace rather than fighting. Fearing that another war was coming, he wrote a choral/orchestral work to vocalize his pleading. This became Dona Nobis Pacem which is latin for “grant us peace.” Using texts from the catholic mass, and poems by American poet Walt Whitman (whose poetry he loved and set many times), he put into music his anti-war sentiments. While received very well by audiences at the time, the work fell on deaf ears and the United Kingdom entered World War II a few years later. Here’s an excerpt from the movement, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” with words by Walt Whitman.
One of Vaughan William’s finest choral works was a piece called “Silence and Music,” with words penned by his second wife and literary advisor Ursula Wood. While it was written for the coronation of Elizabeth II, it is dedicated to his mentor and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford and his “Blue Bird” (a short but stunning choral piece for unaccompanied choir). Listening to the Stanford’s “Blue Bird,” you can see where Vaughan Williams got his inspiration for the piece. It’s not sung very often because of it’s difficulty, but it proves to be a ravishing work of serenity and stillness. This is my favorite recording by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart. Listen to the way he sets the words “weep and cry,” and “the birds rejoice.”
Silence, come first – Silence.
I see a sleeping swan, wings closed and drifting where the water leads, a winter moon, a grove where shadows dream, a hand outstretched to gather hollow reeds.
The four winds in their litanies can tell all of earth’s stories as they weep and cry, the sea names her tides, the birds rejoice between the earth and sky.
Voices of grief and from the heart of joy; so near to comprehension do we stand that wind and sea and all of winged delight lie in the octaves of man’s voice and hand
and music wakes from silence, where it slept.
One piece that must be mentioned is “The Lark Ascending,” written for violin solo and orchestra. Based on a poem by George Meredith, the violin is meant to embody a skylark singing and flying. This work was written surrounding World War I: he finished it before the war for violin and piano and then orchestrated it after returning from the war. I can’t help but get emotional while listening to this piece because of it’s gorgeous nostalgia. It cries out for innocence lost and soars with wild abandon. Many times it flows in and out of states of rapture and grace. This piece remains to be one of the Brits favorite piece of classical music of all time.
There’s so much more music by Vaughan Williams that deserves attention. I encourage you to look up more music by him including his Sea Symphony and Mass in G minor. I want to end this article with what I consider to be one of his most profound works: Serenade to Music. Using words from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice he writes for orchestra and 16 solo singers that he knew and worked with. Later he arranged it for orchestra, choir and 4 soloists to make it more accessible. I frequently find myself coming back to this piece and getting misty-eyed because it embodies so beautifully how I feel about music. I’ve chosen the version with choir and four soloists, but if you prefer to hear the premiere recording with the original singers that Vaughan Williams picked, you can find it here.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins; Such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn! With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear, And draw her home with music. I am never merry when I hear sweet music. The reason is, your spirits are attentive – The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark! It is your music of the house. Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day. Silence bestows that virtue on it How many things by season season’d are To their right praise and true perfection! Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.
And remember, if you liked anything you heard or read, share it with someone else. If not, just wait a little while, something else will come by.
A few months ago, I watched a video from TED with Benjamin Zander talking about classical music and shining eyes. A lot of things about the video struck me and inspired me in what I do everyday. While I don’t agree with everything he says, there’s a lot of gems in this short 20 minute presentation:
One of the things that struck me was that we really are trying hard to move from 3% to 4% when we need to believe that EVERYBODY loves classical music (they just don’t know it yet).
I’ve been pondering about this a while. In addition to the reasons given by Mr. Zander (like poor performances), perhaps people don’t like classical music because they haven’t found the portion of classical music that they would most enjoy. Remember, classical music (or as some colleagues call it, “concert music”) spans hundreds of years, hundreds of composers and dozens of different styles and genres.
I’ve also observed that most people have a very limited view of this music, to no fault of their own. Music education in the majority of our public schools is appalling. Maybe they’ve only been exposed to Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, decided it wasn’t for them and then wrote off the rest of classical music thinking it was all like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. To say that all classical music is like Mozart or Beethoven would be like saying all pop music is like Lady Gaga or Coldplay. There’s much more variety than that.
I’ve decided to take on a challenging project. I want to introduce as much classical music as I can to as many people as I can. I want to help people discover the breadth and depth of classical music from the previous centuries. I’m going to try and present some of the finest “one-buttock” performances I can for your enjoyment, so you can hear the music in it’s most exciting state. In addition, I’ll give some background to the music, some history of the composer and some tips on what to listen for. I’ve found that a little information goes a long way in discovering classical music. If you like what you hear, share it with others. If you don’t like what you hear, just wait, something else will come along.
When you find what you like, I’m sure it will show in your eyes. One of my goals is to light up as many eyes as I possibly can. I really do believe that classical music is for everybody, we just haven’t all found out.