Symphonie Dance-tastique

I’ve been a slacker the past two weeks, failing to post even a single listening reaction to Berlioz. Please accept as my apology this clip of a 1948 Royal Danish Ballet performance of Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” with choreography by Leonid Massine, an important player in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes who first danced to Symphonie Fantastique in 1936.

If you wrote about Mvt. 4 for your “Create-your-own-Program” response, I’d be interested to hear how well this choreography matches your narrative.

(Thanks go to Francesca for asking the question (“Did anyone ever make a ballet out of SF?”) that led me to locate this video.)

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The Beathovens of History

I can’t help but share my personal favorite reference to Beethoven’s famous 9th symphony. It comes from The Beatles’s second feature-length film, Help! (1965). A fan has sent Ringo a ring, the wearer of which is automatically designated as the ritual sacrifice for a fictitious and hilariously Orientalized “Eastern” cult. As a result of receiving and wearing the ring, Ringo gets chased around by members of the cult, and in this scene he’s been trapped in the basement of a London bar, only to find that he’s in the presence of a fierce beast:

Whether Ringo doesn’t know “Ode to Joy” or is simply too nervous to muster his whistling skills, we don’t know. But by the time John repeats the inspector’s instructions – “Don’t worry! All you have to do is whistle famous Beethoven’s famous 9th symphony” – it’s clear what The Beatles think of Beethoven: meh, what’s the big deal?

This scene wasn’t The Beatles’s first comment on how Beethoven’s fame compared with their own. A few years earlier, they covered the Chuck Berry rock standard, “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Clearly, The Beatles thought they were hot stuff – and the rest of the world agreed. How do The Beatles’s accomplishments measure up to Beethoven’s? Can we even compare them? Would we ever dare call The Beatles “geniuses?” Would we call Beethoven “popular?” How many “works” of each might be considered “universal masterpieces?”

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Wistful Winds

There are many reasons to love the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: it’s an oasis of calm in a stormy sea of darkness and violence, the one place in the symphony where there’s no sign of the struggle of a major key to rise up against the oppressive reign of a minor key. (Instead, there’s the struggle of a major key – D major, the one that wins in the end – with another major key – B-flat major, which represents the “dark side” and aligns itself with d minor.)

But the reason I love it so much is because the clarinets finally get to do their thing. Finally, a movement where the strings don’t get things started with some epic gesture! Where the clarinets (and other woodwinds – you flutes, oboes, and bassoons are ok, too) have the sonic space to send their silky-smooth sound slithering slyly, softly, soporifically.

As Carol mentioned in her post on texture, woodwinds weren’t as well developed in Beethoven’s time as they are today, so putting them in anything other than a supporting role meant taking a risk on your performers’ abilities to overcome the technical limitations of their instruments. Still, there are plenty of prominent woodwind moments in Beethoven symphonies, enough to remind us that Beethoven was writing for excellent musicians, and that these instruments were developed enough to execute some pretty delicious stuff. (I’m thinking specifically of the second movement of Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral), and the trio of the third movement of Symphony No. 8.)

When you’re listening to the third movement, take some time to follow the woodwind lines. Consider how they play against the strings: how often do the woodwinds have the melody, while the strings have accompanying (non-melodic) material, and how does this differ from the predominant situation in other movements? Think too about who gets the melody when: how does Beethoven use the different sections of the orchestra to distinguish between theme and variations, between first theme and second theme, between sections where the pulse is in four and sections where the pulse is in three?

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Do you remember?

One of the trickiest – and coolest – things about sonata form is that it tests your memory in various ways. You’re constantly playing the game, “Do you remember?” which you may know by its more informal name, “I feel like I’ve heard this before, but I’m not sure . . .”

Here’s how it works.

Every sonata form piece includes an exposition – where you hear at least one theme for the first time – and a recapitulation – where the return of the theme signals the definitive end of the development and the beginning of the end of the movement. In Mvt. 1 of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, we hear the first theme at 0:25 and the recapitulation of the first theme at 7:25. Hearing the first theme recapitulated is easy – you only get 1 point for hearing that (although if you don’t hear it, you go back to start, so make sure you hear it every time.) When there’s a second theme, you can also play the memory game to see if you remember what that sounds like after a few minutes of intervening music. For Mvt. 1, that means remembering the second theme in the exposition (at 1:45) when you hear it again in the recapitulation (at 7:59). You get five points for remembering the second theme, since it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what the second theme is in the first place.

What about the stuff in between – the stuff we mark with an “m” for “moving” or “medial” or “(un)memorable” in our sonata form schematic? I’m talking about transition music, the sequences (remember those?) and motives that get us from theme one to theme 2. In Mvt. 1, the transition sounds like this:

First there’s that development of the motive at the end of the theme: out of “feel like I should quit facebook right now,” we hear only “feel like I should quit” repeated at steadily rising pitch levels, creating tension through increasing shrillness, and then Beethoven throws in a rhythmic tightening of that motive so that several “like I should quit” parts follow each other rapidly. When that ends and there’s a pause once again, Beethoven introduces a different kind of tension in the low strings’ ostinato (repeated figured) that oscillates between A and Bb (as Professor Kelly would say, that’s probably an accident). Above that, the high strings and woodwinds play half-scales, outlining a tritone (the most dissonant interval). With all of this tension – rhythmic, melodic, intervallic – we breathe a huge sigh of relief when the second theme enters. It’s in major, it’s far more legato (connected, smooth) than the first theme and any of the intervening transitional material, and it’s played primarily by the woodwinds rather than the strings, lending it additional resolution power.

Now that I’ve said all that, do you remember what the transition actually sounds like? Don’t listen to it again yet – first, listen to the “retransition,” which leads from first theme to second theme in the recapitulation.

Now, play the game – do you feel like you’ve heard that before? You should and you shouldn’t. Listen to the original transition again, then listen to the retransition right after. Notice how the “quit facebook right now” repetition is missing from the retransition, but how the descending scales of the second half of the transition make an appearance in altered form. Why, when there’s so much emphasis on repetition in sonata form, would the retransition deviate from the transition? Isn’t it still going from Theme 1 to Theme 2, from point A to point B? Sure it is – but Theme 2/point B is in D major the second time, rather than C major. One of the rules of the recapitulation is that the second theme has to stay in the home key rather than moving to the dominant or the relative major as it does in the exposition. Beethoven, that devil, keeps the second theme in D but switches up the mode: the second theme should be in D minor (like the first theme) but instead is presented in D major.

And that’s another thing to try to remember – are we in the same key as before, or a different key? Is the music moving somewhere, or is it sitting in one spot? The answers to these questions and more, on our next installment of “Do you remember?”

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Sinfonia, Overture, Sinfony, Symphony

How do we get from Monteverdi’s repeating “sinfonia” to Handel’s “Sinfony” to Beethoven’s “Symphony?” A spot of research in Grove Music Online (the resource for music terminology and history, accessible through the e-resources tab on the Harvard libraries page) reveals that the sinfonia in 17th-century opera was an ambiguously-defined genre that encompassed most instrumental music not qualifying as a ritornello. Simple, right? Eventually the sinfonia “migrated” to a position at the beginning of an opera, or oratorio in the case of Messiah.

While the early sinfonia was a bit of a catch-all, it soon adopted a regular form. Italian composers Cavalli and Lulli wrote sinfonia that became known as French overtures (thanks to Lulli’s move to the court of Louis XIV). The French overture, which Professor Kelly mentioned in class before the live performance last week, begins with a stately introduction in two or four with double-dotted notes (think loonnnnnnng short loonnnnnnng short loonnnnnnnng short), then gives way to a quicker section in triple time (|1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3). Got it? A great example is Lulli’s overture to the opera Armide (1686):

Listen closely to the Sinfony from Messiah and you should hear the same shift from an even number of beats in a measure to an odd number, and from slow to fast.

Once the sinfonia/overture had two sections (slow-fast) it wasn’t long before composers added yet another section (so, fast-slow-fast), and these sections evolved into what we now think of as movements, with pauses in between. Eventually the sinfonia/sinfony/symphony became associated with concert performances while the overture – which still had multiple sections at different speeds – remained the opening act for opera.

By the time Beethoven got to the concert symphony, it had been a well-known and highly conventionalized form for over half a century, giving composers many opportunities to toy with expectations and innovate within the safety of familiar constraints.

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Arguable Thesis

There has been great confusion over what constitutes an arguable thesis in a music paper. I’ve been coming up with examples from Messiah (so as not to influence your specific choices for Orfeo) and while reading a student’s description of Scene III, I came up with a somewhat outlandish idea:

“In Messiah Handel uses texture to criticize the Catholic Church as any good Anglican would.”

Before I support my assertion with any evidence, let’s break down the sentence. First, there’s an inarguable part: “Handel uses texture.” True story, can’t disagree with that. Then there’s the arguable bit, which uses the inarguable bit as fuel: “Handel criticizes the Catholic Church.” Why is that arguable? Well, no where in historical documents (newspaper articles, letters, and the like) do we have any indication that Handel actually criticized the Church. And nowhere in the libretto – which is taken from the King James Version of the Old Testament – do we find evidence of any ill feelings towards Catholics. So from whence comes my outlandish statement?

Here are my supporting details: The aria “The people that walked in darkness” has a monophonic texture, but the texture isn’t what creates the dark mood of the piece. Rather, Handel establishes the aria’s mood by having it sung by a bass who often mines the lower reaches of his range, especially on the word “darkness.” What monophony does accomplish, however, is to allude to a practice of monophonic singing the audience would have probably known about: Catholic liturgical chant. The suggestion of chant is even stronger when, at the words “have seen a great light” the monophony starts to break down in favor of polyphony. Handel leads us to consider polyphony – which was often frowned upon by the Catholic Church – to be akin to “seeing the light,” or being theologically enlightened, which most Protestants of the time would associate with Protestantism rather than Catholicism. In the second half of the aria, this binary – monophony/darkness/Catholicism leading to polyphony/enlightenment/Protestantism – is repeated. When the following chorus bombards us with undeniably Protestant choral singing, the message of the preceding aria is only confirmed.

Ok, so I’ve engaged in a little bit of overkill here – I don’t actually believe all the things I just said. But I do believe in the structure of the argument: I use specific musical details, connected with some historical evidence, to argue a point about what Handel’s music means. Never do I praise Handel’s genius (for who am I to judge whether Handel is a genius?) or mention that I like what Handel’s done with the piece. It’s all about what I feel like I can learn about the meaning of this particular aria, and about sharing that with my reader.

Good luck writing your papers – I look forward to reading many strong theses supported by lots of musical evidence!

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Opera, or The Undoing of Women

L’Orfeo is, at heart, a tragic love story. Orfeo and Euridice love each other and lose each other – twice. If the Apollo ending is correct, we’re assured that they’ll be together once again in heaven, allowing the lovers a somewhat happy ending. Something’s weird, though: for a love story, we hear precious little from the leading lady. Euridice sings exactly twice in the entire opera, first in Act I, when she expresses her joy over marrying Orfeo, and then one more time in Act IV, when she reacts to Orfeo looking back.

I cannot tell, Orfeo
the joy that fills my heart at your rejoicing
since my heart’s mine no longer
for you it left me, and both by Love were stolen
Go and inquire then of Love and he will tell you
how my heart rejoices, how much I love you

Ah! vision that I longed for – and yet so bitter
And so through too much love our love must perish?
And I, wretchedly sighing
nevermore shall I fell the warmth of earth or of sunlight
and lost forever, you, much more dear than life
O my companion

Wow, Euridice – you might just be the most boring character in the entire opera! In the first clip, she sings – speaks, really, for this is clearly recitative – about how she wishes she could tell Orfeo of her love for him, but no, he stole her heart, so she can’t really say. So much for a happy bride. There are no flourishes, we hear no word-painting, she doesn’t even end on the note of the scale that would allow complete resolution. Euridice is bizarrely equivocal about her impending nuptials, and her singing is similarly unremarkable.

Later, when Orfeo makes the mistake of turning back, we might expect some real passion – after all, Euridice is about to go back to the Underworld. But no, not really, there’s a bit of word-painting on “misery” (a twinge of dissonance in an otherwise consonant section), and that’s all. Come on, Euridice! Show some back bone!

What’s going on here? It’s not really Euridice’s fault, but rather Monteverdi’s. Orfeo, the greatest musician ever, has fallen in love with a girl who doesn’t seem to have a musical bone in her body, but it didn’t have to be so. Why didn’t Monteverdi give Euridice a more interesting part? It could be that, as the most important character in this opera (for without Euridice, Orfeo would have nothing to sing about), a tuneful Euridice would have posed too much interest for the audience; her power would have extended past drama to music as well. In this, Monteverdi might have been the first of many librettists and composers to take steps to limit the power of female characters. It’s not unusual for the prima donna to get killed off by the end of the opera; it is unusual that she sing so little prior to getting killed off.

There’s an entire book about misogyny in opera: it’s called Opera: The Undoing of Women, and it’s by French essayist Catherine Clément. She doesn’t mention Euridice’s sad lot in L’Orfeo, but if she did, I think we can guess what she might say.

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