TBT: The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”

It being a week of romance and lots of artistic endeavors, I decided to look back this Thursday to a post about the great French composer, Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz is the quintessential Romantic:  he wrote the subject of today’s post, the very fun Symphonie Fantastique, to deal with his lovesickness—and he ended up getting the girl because of it!

Another Berlioz heartbreak anecdote:  after his fiancée left him for another man (note, this woman is not the same as the subject of the Symphonie Fantastique), Berlioz plotted her and her new husband’s murder.  He traveled to Nice, where the couple was living, and took along weapons, disguises, and other murder paraphernalia.  When he disembarked from the train, he came to his senses, and abandoned his ill-conceived plot.  Instead, he spent a couple of weeks in Nice composing.

Talk about a whiplash!  I’m a sensitive poet-warrior at times, and I’ve experienced lovesickness, but never to the extent of Berlioz.  Still, I identify with his desire to compose music to get (or to cope with not getting) chicks.

With that, here is 29 January 2021’s “The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’“:

Read More »

Péchés d’âge moyen

During the last eleven years of his life, the great composer of Italian opera Gioachino Rossini, enjoying a sumptuous retirement after a successful career, composed a collection of 150 pieces.  He dubbed these pieces—intended for intimate and private performances in his home—Péchés de vieillesse, or “Sins of Old Age” (that title is actually affixed to only two of the fourteen albums, but later was applied to the entire collection).  The pieces are a mix of chamber, vocal, and piano music, all meant to be played in Rossini’s home.

Most readers will recognize Rossini from his memorable overtures—often written mere hours before the opening nights of his operas, much to the chagrin of theatre managers—which are probably better known to mass audiences than his operas.  Here’s the most famous of them:

Romantic Era music that even Audre Myers can enjoy!

Rossini was so successful as a composer, he basically spent forty years in retirement.  While music historians disagree on exactly why he stopped composing operas so young, I suspect it had to do with the fact that made so much money from them, he didn’t need to work anymore, and enjoyed a fun retirement (ill-health was likely a contributing factor, too).  He also exited gracefully at the top of his game, avoiding the common pitfall of overstaying one’s artistic welcome amid changing times and tastes.

As such, the Péchés de vieillesse are real gems, coming as they did from a great composer who had long retired from the craft.  Here’s just one example (of 150!), his “Prelude inoffensif” from Volume VII of the collection:

As readers know, I’ve been getting back into composing, and have been exploring composing by hand.  It is extremely satisfying to write pieces by hand (as opposed to a computer, which is certainly more convenient, but lacking in the same tactile satisfaction).  I’ve written a few short piano miniatures—some good, some desperately in need of revision—and Rossini’s “Sins” have inspired some of my own:  a small project I’m dubbing Péchés d’âge moyen.

Read More »

Composing Humorous Miniatures

Today’s post will be a bit of an acquired taste, as I’m essentially spinning a cheesy inside joke from the Internet into a post for general consumption.

At best, I’m hopeful it will give some insight into the often arbitrary and absurd sources for inspiration.  I will note here that the short compositions here do not sound good (except for the second of the Ethiopian Rhapsodies I dashed off, which is actually pretty fun).

Read More »

TBT^2: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

One of the many benefits of teaching music is (re)discovering beloved favorite works.  During last week’s round of distance learning, I had to pull out some of the classics.  If we’re going to sit on a Google Meet call, let’s listen to some music, not just talk about it.

I really love programmatic music—instrumental music that tells a story, often accompanied by program notes explaining (usually very briefly) what the listener is supposed to hear in the musical “story.”  Students often like to imagine their own stories when listening to instrumental music, which is great, but I find that programmatic works give students (and myself!) some guideposts to follow.

Fortunately, Ludwig von Beethoven provided some handy ones for us in his Sixth Symphony, quite possibly my favorite symphony, and certainly my favorite of Beethoven’s.  It’s the so-called “Pastoral” symphony, as it depicts a pleasant trip to the country (besides the roiling thunderstorm in the fourth movement).

It’s also unusual in two respects:  instead of the standard four movements of the classical symphony (a fast opening movement, a slow second movement, a dancelike third movement, and a fast fourth movement), Beethoven includes five; and the third, fourth, and fifth movements all flow seamlessly into one another, without the customary pause between each.

It is also long, especially by the standards of the classical symphony (the Romantics, however, would have easily matched Beethoven for runtime), clocking in at nearly forty-five minutes (the typical classical symphony averages around twenty-five-to-thirty minutes, but forty-five would have been the upper limit for the time).  But that length is in service to Beethoven’s vision, and he fully explores every theme in this symphony.

Here is a particularly excellent performance—the one I showed, in part, to my classes last week—by the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Bernard Haitnik:

With that, here is 4 February 2021’s “TBT: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony“:

Read More »

TBT^2: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

It’s Exam Week again, and I’ve managed to stay on top of grading as of the time of this writing.  My school only requires teachers to be on campus this week for exams we’re proctoring, so it’s been much quieter and more relaxed than the two weeks preceding this one.

It’s interesting looking back at this post in its prior permutations, though they both explore the same idea:  the genius that arises from pressure.

I don’t work well under pressure, but if I have to twenty-three-skidoo together a song in twenty-four hours, I’m far more likely to get it done than if I have an amorphous, open-ended deadline.  I’ve been approached on a small number of occasions to compose music for certain purposes, and I usually fall down on the job.  I find that while I can write a song fairly quickly, I do not compose instrumental music terribly well under pressure.  That requires a great deal of thought, especially if the music is programmatic in nature.

That said, I’ve been listening to more of my buddy Frederick Ingram’s work, and even some of my old EP.  It’s pretty remarkable listening back to some of the songs that I wrote, a few of them nearly ten years ago!  I also realize that I actually wrote some pretty good songs—and I’ve been trying to figure out where that inspiration and lyrical subtlety went.

For example, I’ve long written off one of my songs, “Funeral Pyre,” as kind of a throwaway tune.  I wrote it the morning I was supposed to begin recording the record (but that session was rescheduled due to a snowstorm).  It was based on an interesting line that popped into my head one night before bed:  “That crackling fire/was the funeral pyre/for the flame that I held out/for you.”

The song was intended to be a Meat Loafian ballad about unrequited love and romantic mistakes that, despite the pain, bring with them growth.  But it’s never been a fan favorite, and I gradually stopped playing it at live shows except only occasionally.

In listening back to it now, I’m actually pretty darn impressed with some of the poetic imagery I managed to evoke (I was probably twenty-nine at the time I wrote it, if I have my dates right).  It is very much inspired by Jim Steinman’s writing for Meat Loaf, and the piece is actually quite vocally demanding (though not nearly as impressive as Loaf himself).  It doesn’t have the toe-tapping, singalong quality of “Hipster Girl Next Door” or the iconic hooks of “Greek Fair,” but I find that I am finding depth in my own song that I didn’t realize was there!

Well, anyway, that’s enough navel-gazing.  I promise I’m not trying to brag about how brilliant younger me was, but it’s pretty cool revisiting my older works.  To be sure, listening back to some of those tracks now almost sounds like karaoke, with my voice over pianos that are mixed—why am I only noticing this years later?—a little too loud, giving the sensation of a karaoke track.

With that, here is “TBT: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

Read More »

TBT: Singing Christmas Carols with Kids

December is here, and that means it’s time for Christmas music!  My students and I are prepping for our annual Christmas concert—back after The Age of The Virus—and have been playing and singing quite a bit of Christmas music.

Indeed, my Music Club—a club designed to get students involved in playing and performing music who, for whatever reason, could not get a music class fit into their schedules—met Tuesday to sing some carols, with the idea being that we will spend lunch and break periods next week caroling for the student body.

As their voices came together in sparkling purity, it reminded me of this post from last year.  We started our short rehearsal with “Silent Night,” one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, and the sweetness and fullness of it with eight or so singers really swelled my heart.  We also sang “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and one or two others that escape me.

I once heard that singing is good for you, both physically and mentally.  Christmas carols—songs about the Birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ—surely are good for you spiritually, too.  Sing some today.

With that, here is 4 December 2020’s “Singing Christmas Carols with Kids“:

Read More »

The Joy of Renaissance Music: Palestrina’s “Pope Marcellus” Mass

It’s another school year, which means another year going through the history of Western music in Pre-AP Music Appreciation.  This week we’re diving into Renaissance music, after spending last week covering the music of the Middle Ages.

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were not a period of depressing darkness, but rather a lively age.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be a peasant pushing an ox cart full of dung, but that peasant knew his place in the universe, in the sense that he knew he was part of an ordered cosmos with God at both its head and its center.

More on that another time, but I mention it to note that the Renaissance would not have been possible without that long age of faith in the Middle Ages.  Still, the Renaissance Period—variably dated, but starting roughly sometime in the fifteenth century, and extending to the seventeenth century—was a period of increased interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the human realism depicted in the art of those great civilizations, both a continuation of and a departure from the Middle Ages.

It also saw the declining influence of the Catholic Church in Europe, especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  As Protestantism and other social forces broke the Church’s monopoly on education and its dominance over art and music, Catholicism mounted a Counter-Reformation, aimed at both reducing the influence of Protestantism and reforming real abuses within the Roman Church.

That effort, naturally, involved revisions to music.  Catholic priests denounced the increasingly theatrical nature of church music, decrying it as distracting from the simple message of the Gospel and the sacred Latin text, instead serving as gaudy entertainment for Mass goers.  Much like the megachurch arena rock concerts of today, services had become garish and maudlin, a reflection of the corruption within the Church.

It was in this context that Giovanni Pieluigi da Palestrina composed his greatest works.  According to Roger Kamien in Music: An Appreciation (the eighth brief edition, which I use with my students), Palestrina composed some 104 masses and 450 other sacred works, and his music became, essentially, the gold standard of church music until modern times (“masses” in the musical context are works built around five sung prayers, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, not to be confused with the Catholic service).

Read More »

Lazy Sunday CXXIX: Friends, Part I

Back in June, I started a new feature on non-Bandcamp FridaysSupporting Friends Friday.  It’s a small way to highlight and support the works and talents of my various friends, of both the IRL and online variety.

Now that I’ve written several of these posts, it seemed like a good time to look back at them.  The three this week are all good friends I know personally—indeed, they all live within forty-five minutes of me—and we have a musical connection.  The first friend featured is a poet, but we met at local open mic nights.

Happy Sunday!

—TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

Tip The Portly Politico:  Support quality commentary on politics, education, culture, and the arts with your one-time donation.

***NOTEThis link is NOT a subscription to my SubscribeStar Page; it is for a one-time donation/tip via PayPal. To subscribe to my SubscribeStar page, use this URL:   https://subscribestar.com/the-portly-politico***