Symphonie fantastique- March au supplice: Hector Berlioz

We're going to break with tradition this week.  Yes, I know you all were expecting another piece of music for the "Dramatic Music" series, but I made an executive decision.  And since I'm the only employee making decisions around here, there was little room for dissension.

This week, being the last Friday before Halloween, will be dedicated to one of my favorite pieces of music, coincidentally, one of my favorite pieces to share and discuss around this time of year.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote Symphonie fantastique in 1830.  We've discussed music of this era before, classifying it as Romantic and examining the luscious and overtly sensual nature of the melodies produced during this era.  Berlioz was also breaking boundaries in the arena of what came to be known as Program Music. Essentially, a piece of music crafted to tell a story without the use of words. A composer would usually leave notes in the score, describing his intentions and try to paint scenery and props and characters and plot with notes and rhythms.

It became unusually successful.

Berlioz himself was forever fighting bad press.  The critics in Paris found his music discordant and loathesome, and seemed to take great delight in writing scathing reviews of his work. In reading of Berlioz, I think it went past the point of discouragement for him, but drew out a sardonic wit that endears him greatly to me. He wrote a piece, L'enfance du Christ, which was programmatic music that detailed various parts of Jesus' young life with his family.  It originated with an organ piece entitled, L'adieu des bergers, which translates into "the Shepherd's farewell". It recreates the last moments of the shepherds' visit with the newborn, baby Jesus.  Eventually, he turned it into a choral work and decided to play a prank on his antagonists in the newspaper business.

He premiered the new version of the piece and claimed it to be written by some obscure 17th century composer named "Ducré" who totally didn't exist.  It ended up being a resounding success, being praised by almost every critic that had previously scorned Berlioz.  My favorite bit is a quote from presumably a female critic in the French newspapers that read: "Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece by old Ducré".  If the internet had been invented in the 1800's, Berlioz might've responded thusly...

Yeah, she mad.
So, Berlioz really came into his own with his Symphonie fantastique, a wild ride that follows an artist who decides to kill himself by overdosing on opium as a recourse from being rebuffed by the woman he loves. There is some parallelism here within Berlioz's own life, having fallen madly in love with the actress, Harriet Smithson, and being rejected quite profoundly.  So, in his fantasy, Berlioz's artist takes enough opium to cause him to fall from reality, but not quite enough to kill himself.  He drifts through five movements of various dream-like imagery, all the while following his beloved to the tune of an idée fixe, which is a repeating melody that represents this lovely woman.

We'll focus primarily on the fourth movement.

Here are Berlioz's program notes:

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.

That last bit is important.  You'll hear a processional-like march fading in as you can imagine a small crowd of people leading a carriage with the condemned man up a hill to a scaffold built on the crest of the bluff. This carries on for a bit, you can imagine the crowd being quite pleased that this scoundrel will soon be out of their presence. The scaffold, as you might imagine, is in fact the guillotine, the French weapon of choice in the 19th century for dispatching ne'er-do-wells.  And as he's strapped down into this insidious device, he gazes out into the crowd.  And for a fleeting moment, he sees his beloved!  Hooray!


Bump, bump.

So, sit back, and enjoy what is almost certainly the first musical representation of an artist's severed head bouncing to the ground.

Happy Halloween!

Homework: Just listen to this one.  It's really awesome.  If you want extra credit you can listen to the whole thing.  Look it up.  It's totally on YouTube.

See you next Friday.




Lucia di Lammermoor- Il Dulce Suono: Gaetano Donizetti

It's the late 1800's.  You're in Scotland.  Your name is Lucia and you're in love with a guy named Edgardo.  Your brother, Enrico, is kind of a jerk and really hates this guy.  You end up vowing to get married to your love, Edgardo, even though some dead chick's ghost tells you it's totally a bad idea.

Your brother, being a jerk, forges a letter from Edgardo that says he's totally not into you and that whole vow thing was a big joke. Plus, he's totally into this new chick who's way hotter than you are anyways. Enrico and your chaplain both agree that Edgardo is a loser and that you really should marry this other guy Arturo instead.  You agree, but still feel weird about it.

Suddenly, Edgardo returns!  But you've already signed the marriage contract with Arturo because your brother's a jerk!  Edgardo gets super mad and tramples his ring you gave him into the dirt and storms off. You kinda black out from this point forward.  Something about Edgardo and your brother fighting, but you're not really sure what you're doing or what's going on around you for a bit.  Everything's wishy-washy and in Italian (but sometime later French).

So, you finally come to and you're in the middle of your wedding reception! Yay!  All of your friends and family are here!  And the best part?  You're totally married to Edgardo after all! But where's Arturo?  

Why do you have that knife in your hand?

Why is your dress covered in blood?

And why do you feel these things are somehow related?

And that's where our Listening Friday example comes in.  Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was an early Romantic era composer from Italy.  He was a master of what was known as the Bel Canto style of opera composition, a style that you will probably be familiar with as the generic opera singer 'sound'.  It uses a lot of the more expressive and zealous tendencies of the operatic style (big, fancy, loud).  'Bel Canto' translates from Italian to 'beautiful singing', contrasting with the Wagnerian style of opera, which was also beautiful, but in a more Vikings and thunderbolts kinda way.  

Kill the wabbit?
Donizetti was not born into a musical dynasty, in fact his dad was the town's pawn broker. He received a good music education and eventually wrote a whole mess of operas.  He also is known for several works for piano, chamber ensemble (which is a small group of similarish instruments), a few concertos, and a handful of other orchestral and choral works.

Lucia di Lammermoor is often considered his magnum opus.  It was based on a novel (the Bride of Lammermoor) by the Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, and follows roughly the same plot detailed above.  Donizetti was capitalizing on European interest in Scottish culture at this point in history, as well as the death and retirement of his main operatic competition around the time he composed this work.

This work is highly pervasive in modern culture, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out that you have in fact heard bits of it, perhaps even the excerpt we'll look at today.  The second act of the opera features a sextet called, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?' (Who is holding me back at this time?).  In some way, it's become a sort of anthem for mobster/gangster movies. Fans of the original Scarface will recognize it from when Tony was about to axe someone.

Hipsters liked Scarface before Pacino.

It also was used in Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, "The Departed".  One scene where Jack Nicholson is actually watching a performance of the opera and another where it's revealed that his cell phone ringtone is the sextet.  I'll include a recording of this work as well, because if you like Il Dulce Suono, you'll really like this Chi mi frena.

Il Dulce Suono is best known to most of us today through its performance in Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element".  The crazy, blue alien, Plavalaguna, performs it before getting shot in the stomach.  This rendition was actually sung by an Albanian singer named Inva Mula, who incidentally did not have to dress up like a blue alien and get shot.  That was the job of the French actress, Maïwenn Le Besco, who was for a time Besson's wife.

Luc Besson was marrying tall, blue women with tails before James Cameron even sank the Titanic.

I really like this opera in general because I feel it fully embodies every element a good opera needs: There's fighting, there's forbidden love, there's murder, and there's a chick who completely loses her freaking mind and scares the hell out of everyone at her wedding.

Il Dulce Suono is better known by its common name, "The Mad Scene".  As described above, Lucia is getting married to Arturo, but goes nuts and murders him slasher-movie-style.  After doing this she walks out to her wedding reception where basically everyone in Scotland is there.  She has no idea what's going on nor recollection of what she did, but she imagines that she is actually married to Edgardo and everything's cool.

Hey little sister!  What have you done?
Everyone is pretty much freaked out, as you might imagine, and when Enrico comes back he initially starts to yell at his sister but quickly realizes that she's not all there upstairs. She ends up dying from being hysterical or some other opera-related disease.  Edgardo, who previously agreed to fight Enrico, finds out that Lucia is dead and kills himself with his dagger, heading off life at the pass to meet Lucia in heaven.

Happily ever after?

Il Dulce Suono in operatic circles has essentially become the handbook for sopranos who want to be recognized for their extreme range, placing them in the category of "Coloratura Sopranos".  This is like being the Kerri Strug of vocalists.  Essentially, you have a super light, agile and flexible voice with incredible range and ability to sing in the stratosphere.

Interesting side note: The solo flute you'll hear in the recording was originally supposed to be a glass harmonica.  This instrument was played much in the same way that you can run your finger along a crystal glass to make it ring. Benjamin Franklin invented a horizontal version that utilized a lathe-like desk with glass rings that rotated quickly through a basin of water. By placing your fingers on the different pieces of glass you could make them ring, and play it in a similar fashion to keyboard instruments.

Dammit, Jefferson!  I shall not play the Chicken Dance again!

The glass harmonica has an interesting (and persistent) story alongside it that anyone who plays it too much becomes super depressed or just plain crazy.  In the 1800's, they called it melancholia, but later on some claimed that the lead in the crystal would cause lead poisoning.  There's no science to back this up, but this instrument sounds as unsettling as anything.  The perfect accompaniment to a post-homicidal bride who loses her mind.

Homework: Think of a time your brother (or sister, I guess) wouldn't let you do something you didn't want to do.  Share this with them.  : )

See you next Friday.


Natalie Dessay is performing the Mad Scene at the Met in 2011.


Here's the Sextet with Pavarotti!


Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick: Fiddler On The Roof

So a few entries back we focused on John William's and his score to "Star Wars".  It got me to thinking about the scope of this blog in general.  Originally, it was an idea for getting kids to like music they haven't heard before (if you clicked the links on the right, you'd already know this).  If you're like me then discovering new music from a friend might go something like this:

Friend- "Hey, Ed!  You've got to listen to this!  It's Stinky-Wizzleteats newest album!"

Ed- "Hmm?"

Friend- "Here!  Listen!" *plays music for approximately 5 seconds*

Ed- "Don't like it."

Friend- "But you haven't even heard..."

Ed- "Nope."

Friend- "But..."

Ed- "No."

Friend- "Ok...."

*Fast forward to a week later*

Friend- "Hey, Ed!  What are ya listening to?"

Ed- "Stinky Wizzleteats newest..."

Friend *Facepalm*

And so forth...  There is a statistic somewhere (I don't recall where, I picked it up somewhere in college) that states that we set our preferences on music within the first 5 or so seconds of hearing a new piece of it.  In that span of time, we will instantly determine whether or not this music is something we will come to love or hate.  Keep or discard.  It's quick and incredibly potent.  For a music educator, it can essentially mean life or death when programming music for your kids.  It's a lot easier to get kids excited about something they really like.


But, sometimes it's important to learn and know stuff that we don't necessarily like.  An example that immediately comes to mind is the Holocaust.  It is by no means a pleasant course of study, nor a very uplifting one.  For some it might even mean a great deal of grief or even shame.  However, a quality and purposeful understanding of our own history is endemic to learning from the mistakes of not just our countrymen, but from our species. Without history, we have no foundation upon which to create our society.  Everything would be starting from scratch.

Much in the same vein then is learning about and listening to music.  Everything we hear is immediately criticized against an evolving set of standards that we've subconsciously established within our minds.  Our preference has been formed over years and years of social influence and to some degree personal preference.  I don't place personal preference in the same category as social influence because I really think it's a chicken and the egg sort of relationship when it comes to musical taste.

If you think back to your earliest recollection of music, it most likely involved your parents. Perhaps a lullaby comes to mind that you were soothed to sleep to.  Later on, you might have learned to sing a few tunes in elementary school or church chorus.  As you grew older, your own friends became a driving influence on the type of music you found enchanting.  For kids, it's of significant importance to belong and feel a part of the group.  Listening to similar music is almost always an important facet of this field of inter-relations.  Your preference then, is a direct result of the changing social spheres that you moved through in your youth.  It changes drastically from generation to generation.  My parents would have primarily gotten their music through their radio, but also television as it became more commonplace. My grandparents would have had the radio, but live performances of popular music were more commonplace and accessible.  More people played instruments.  My great-grandparents might have only had access to live performances.  I have grown up in a time when music was well-known on television, but also began spreading to transmission via online means.  The birth of the mp3 (and the death of fidelity as some might say) was within my youth.  My own son will not know of a world where you can't listen to whatever you want, whenever you want at the flick of a glass screen.

Back in my day we had to steal our music from the radio!  Damn kids and your torrents!

The common denominator in all of this, of course, is that music is and always will be a social event.  People don't create music and then place it in a box and lock it away forever (unless you're Brahms).  Music is, by definition, a means of communicating that which is incommunicable.  It is a language that is far superior to any verbal correspondence.  So, inspired by John Williams and his Star Wars, I announce that the new series we will explore will be called:

And not just any old dramatic music- we're talking strictly music that is coupled with action on stage.  We'll explore opera, Broadway, movies, and everything in the middle.  Starting off with week 1, we have the Fiddler on the Roof.

Sounds crazy, no?

For those that don't know, the plot follows a poor family in Russia in the early 1900's as they hold on to their Jewish traditions in spite of a rapidly changing political climate.  Pre-World War I Russia held a disparaging view towards their Jewish population and over time it grew more openly hostile.  The main character, a man named Tevye, was the father of five children- all daughters.  A central part of the plot revolved around the marriage of his daughters and their growth away from the traditions in which they were brought up and an increasing embrace from all the characters of the cultural shifts occurring around them.

The music itself was written by Jerry Bock (1928-2010) with the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (b. 1924).  The music features a bevy of Jewish influence and in true Musical form (as in Broadway Musical form) much of the plot is advanced through each of the musical numbers. Incidentally, our example will come from the movie adaptation, for which John Williams arranged and conducted the score. Now, the work itself is over two hours long, so we'll have to focus on one aspect of this work for today's LF.  In this case, we'll look at "If I Were a Rich Man"

Tevye is not wealthy.  He's a milk man for a poor village and makes enough to scrape by and keep his family fed.  He's a proud man and devoted religiously, despite his tendencies to regularly misquote scripture to great comedic effect.  The song itself is apparently written in the "klezmer" style.  Full disclosure- I had no idea what this means.  After researching it, I learned that it is a predominantly Jewish style with origins in eastern Europe from the mid-1800's onward.  It was transported to the United States along with the Yiddish culture by Jewish immigrants coming from the same area.  From there it interacted with the budding Jazz music of the time.

The term itself didn't come to embody this style of music until the 1970's (at one point previously, it actually was a perjorative term used to described musicians).

You know, in case just being a musician wasn't bad enough.

It was obviously popular amongst Jewish immigrants to the United States well ahead of that decade. Fiddler, incidentally, was published in 1964. The other interesting thing about the name 'klezmer' is that it translates from Hebrew to essentially mean 'musical instrument'. The style itself can be described by its imitation of Jewish liturgical singing and chant as well as very emotional ornamentation.  An example of these are called, "Krekhts", which is essentially a crying violin. The music genre experienced a bit of a revival in the 1970's (perhaps spurred by the popularity of Fiddler?) and there were several groups performing contemporary music in this style.

Meet the Klezmatics.

Here's what I like about this music.  It's highly social and has evolved considerably alongside the people that have created it.  It embodies and enhances the scene where Tevye is bemoaning his financial straits essentially because this music was born of a generation in his shoes.  I love how Tevye lists all of the fancy items he'd acquire and all of the wonderful things he'd do with his wealth, but at the center of his day dream is the chance to learn and read the scripture at his leisure.  To me, that moment truly reflects what Tevye is all about. He doesn't deny his aspirations to become a well-known and respected man in his community, but at his core he just desires more time to learn about his religion and his God. To become a better person.

So listen and enjoy this first bit of Dramatic Music, but be ready to open your ears next week to something that might be a little bit out of your social music climate.

Homework: Listen to this.  Do nothing.  Wait 3 days.  Listen to it again.  Decide whether or not you actually like it.

 See you next Friday.


Fiddler on the Roof is licensed by Music Theatre International
The film adaption of Fiddler is licensed by United Artists
The Blues Brothers is licensed by Universal Pictures


Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

So our post-1960's non-crappy music series has come to a head and admittedly, I've had a little trouble narrowing down a worthy enough selection to share for the conclusion.  One of the pieces of criteria I selected in this final choice was that it did have to include some vocal work.  Another requirement I felt necessary was that it had to be well-known enough to have either gotten decent radio time in its era, or popular enough to still be on the radio.  I was kinda stumped.  

So, I decided that I would scan the stations regularly this week, hoping for some inspiration to come crashing through the speakers of the 2001 Ford Taurus as it barrel-assed up and down the interstate each morning and afternoon.  

When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're going to see somebody die.

I have since learned that at any given point during the day there will in fact be two radio stations that will be simultaneously playing "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke.  I actually had to look up the title of the song and accidentally the lyrics.  I'm slightly concerned that I might have damaged my brain beyond repair as a result. 

Uninteresting sidenote: Robin Thicke is in fact the son of TV's Alan Thicke, thus proving that no matter how much of a tasteless idiot you may be, you can get 15 minutes of fame so long as you have a parent who was or is on the B list.  

You were expecting Hannah Montana again.

I digress.  I had all but given up hope of finding a song that fit my criteria.  Everything was either too bland, too overplayed or simply just didn't speak to me. I was driving home late at night.  The lines on the highway whizzed past me at breakneck pace.  The radio was quietly scanning through the FM band in a futile effort to summon forth a gem from the rough, something worthwhile and true.  Then it happened.  

A song I'd heard many times before came over the radio.  It started slow and all the familiar pieces came through and it was meant to be.  It was right, it was good, and it fit everything I had been seeking. It was of course, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven".  

It's hard to pin down the first time I heard this tune.  Obviously, I was born well after it came into existence so it probably was on the radio where I heard it the first time.  A big issue I see in selecting this for Listening Friday is that I can almost guarantee (with the exception of all you fine people from Kazakhstan who seem to really enjoy my blog), everyone reading this blog will have already heard it. So my problem then is to find something unique in the obvious.  So, this may be tricky.

Let's talk about the form.  Rock and Roll (which is what Zep is at heart) is really a genre that is a direct derivative of the blues and jazz in general.  The form of the verses and chorus all draw from the prototypical construction of your standard blues piece.  The concept of improvised soloing over a repeating progression of chords is also a direct influence of Jazz.  The big shift came with instrumentation and turning the drum set upside down in a manner of speaking.  

For the sake of argument, let's focus specifically on the Blues.  When you say Jazz, it's a much larger genre that potentially encompasses close to 100 years of music and artistic influence. When we say Blues, we're talking about a subset of Jazz and one of the earliest forms of traditional Jazz.  In the Blues, you usually have a pattern of three or four chords that occur in a set order over the course of 12 bars.  The drum set and the bass guitar emphasize the tempo and pulse through the use of cymbals and a plodding quarter-note pulse on the bass.  The snare, kick, and tom drums are typically used more for accent and color.  You'd usually have a piano player and/or a guitarist that will "comp" over the rhythm engine built by the bassist and the drummer.  Comping is essentially playing the full or partial chords (of which the bass player establishes the bottom end) along a pattern that is improvised to blend with the drum pattern and/or what the other comping musician is doing.  

Once you have this little motor running, you can add any number of musicians on top in any wide array of instruments.  The beauty of the Blues is that it is highly adaptable and universal, but your typical instrumentation featured a drum kit, a bass (usually upright), a piano, a guitar, and some sort of wind instrument(s).  

As jazz evolved and began picking up mainstream notoriety, we saw a cultural divergence and a spread across the country.  That's really a discussion for another article though. Sticking to how we get to Led Zeppelin from here- Rock evolved out of Jazz as a change in style and instrumentation.  At its heart, you still have the core of the engine room: drums and bass, but with more emphasis on the guitar part and the guitar itself as a virtuosic instrument.  

Zep' came into being around the end of the Beatles.  Rock and Roll was firmly established in the American Psyche in the late 1960's, but the climate had changed.  The country was living through Vietnam and had been growing up in a world that was now teetering on the edge of existence and nuclear holocaust.  From my 30 year old perspective, I kinda look at the 60's as though the US might have been in high school and college and the 70's would be that timeframe in your late 20's where you're actually growing up and figuring out just how harsh and cruel a place the world can sometimes be.  

The Beatles felt the shift through their own growing pains, but the world was ready for something newer and with more grit and grime.  Led Zeppelin became that, positioned right between the end of the last bits of direct Blues-influenced Rock and Roll, but before the Progressive Rock generation they inspired. Led Zeppelin taught us that Rock didn't have to fit into the cookie cutter mold, that it could be more than just a riff and changes.  

By their fourth album, they were ready to produce their magnum opus.  "Stairway to Heaven" is to me the bridge that takes us from the bouncy, rollicking fun of the 60's rock and leads us into the lengthy, symphonic ballads of 70's rock and lays the foundation for the grit of the punk rock in the 80's and eventually the loose thrash of 90's grunge and alternative.  Then came 2000...

"But don't worry!" said Canada, "We've got this new young chap named Justin!"

Examining the actual form of the piece in detail it's a fairly complex piece of music relative to it's closest ancestors.  It begins with a simple finger-picked introduction on acoustic guitar and accompanied by recorders in a Renaissance-reflective style.  It stays in this subtle, quietly building A section for a time and eventually reprises the same theme, but with heavier instrumentation.  After the repeat of the A section we hear a new theme in a transitional role which takes us to a newer faster tempo and a blisteringly iconic solo by Jimmy Page.  As the solo concludes we're encouraged to reflect on the actual meaning behind the lyrics in a full-bore rock-laden B section.  The "lady" we're told of is one of high standards and even higher taste. The message I get from this song is one of hope, that there is more to life than just building wealth and getting ahead.  There is a deeper meaning and the futility of buying a stairway to heaven is representative of our inward temptation to look for the simple, all-in solutions to the problems in our lives.  

It could also be that they were all really drunk and it sounded cool.  However, looking at how Bonham met his end, I kinda doubt that it would be that shallow.  We all have our demons that drive us to the easy road, our own golden stairways.  

Either way, there is something there, within this song, that makes it able to withstand the test of time and still be influential and well-cited 40 years later.  Listening back to it now with better ears, the fact that it goes beyond the cookie cutter mold of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-bored is a huge bonus point, let alone the fact that you can just hear in the lyrics as Plant and Page sing their hearts out, that this means something more to them than just another track.  

This was their legacy.  

Homework: Read the lyrics as you listen to this song.  Write a short story/passage about the "lady".  

See you next Friday.