This week music, especially programmatic music, has surrounded me. It’s remarkable how music so effectively conveys mood and feeling, and how a simple change in musical tone can shift one’s entire interpretation of a scene or visual.
So it seemed like an opportune time to revisit this highly imaginative and emotional work from Hector Berlioz, himself a rather tempest-tossed personality, adrift on a sea of emotions.
Also, my Middle School Music Students are listening to the fourth and fifth movements today while I am away—fun!
I love it when I’ve been blogging long enough that some pieces get the coveted “TBT^4” designation (or higher!). I don’t know if readers pick up on this delight, or that I’m even layering commentary upon commentary, but it’s one of those little things that I enjoy about the blog.
I particularly love it when I get to reblog a post about something I really like. I know classical music isn’t exactly the hot new thing, but most of the hot new things stink, and this music has stood and will continue to stand the tests of time and fashion.
That’s probably no truer than for the music of Beethoven, a truly titanic, tumultuous, troubled figure, the man who bridged the gap between the symmetry and precision of classical music and the stormy, emotional grandiloquence of Romantic music.
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” is my favorite of his symphonies. I’m a sucker for programmatic music, and Beethoven takes us on a moving trip through the countryside.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about classical and Romantic music, both of which hold a special place in my heart. Part of the reason is that I am not currently teaching the Pre-AP Music Appreciation course that guaranteed a near-daily baptism in the greatest works of these periods.
So in casting about for a good TBT installment, I came across this little post about one of my favorite bits of programmatic work, Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau.” It’s a beautiful work that transports listeners on a magical journey down the titular river.
I love programmatic music because of its accessibility to average listeners (and because there’s something intriguing to me about a text accompanying purely instrumental music)—anyone can listen to this piece and hear the different scenes on the cruise down the river. It’s also such a beautiful expression of Smetana’s love for his homeland.
We’re getting into the time of year when my personal creativity seems to spark. I should be way more productive creatively in the summer, when I enjoy loads of unstructured time, but I find that I work better in the constrains and confines of a busy schedule. For whatever reason, that extra pressure helps me to eke out, if not diamonds, then at least some lesser gems.
One well from which I have drawn some considerable inspiration the last couple of years was my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class. It was a broad survey of Western music from the medieval period to the present, with a strong emphasis on the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Due to a combination of scheduling difficulties and lower enrollment last year, the class did not run this year.
On the one hand, I’m thankful—it’s given me more time to focus on other endeavors. On the other, I do miss the almost-daily baptism in the works of some of the greatest composers in the Western canon.
One element of the course that was particularly intriguing was learning about the lives and creative processes of the composers. Many of them lived quite tragic lives; others (rarer, it seems, among composers) lived quite contentedly.
Gustav Mahler seemed to have developed a nice little work routine, as detailed in this post from October 2021. I like the idea of having a stripped-down cottage by the sea, with a healthy breakfast brought to me as I work. Sounds like the good life!
Readers also might know that I keep a fairly busy schedule. Doing so requires sticking to routine, but that’s not always my strong suit. My mind tends to jump from one task to another, but I find that writing out a detailed “to-do” list and crossing it off helps me to focus in on a task for extended periods of time.
When I really get into something—working on a new collection of piano miniatures, grading papers, or writing blog posts—I can focus in for hours, and often do that. But working into that flow state takes time and, more importantly, motivation. It’s the latter that I have been lacking the past week, a combination of end-of-the-school-year exhaustion and a renewed interest in Civilization VI.
So I thought it’d be interesting during this winding down season—when my own routine is about to change to the more leisurely pace of summertime—to look at Beethoven’s daily routine, care of YouTube channel Inside the Score.
It’s half the tracks of Péchés d’âge moyen, which was not my original intent. I’d hoped to record at least another ten, but with time dwindling, I opted instead to record the five pieces I wrote the week of 14-18 March 2022.
I managed to compose one piece each day that week, and it was an eventful one: Pi Day (14 March), The Ides of March (15 March), and Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March) all fell within days of one another.
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.
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:
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.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day! As such, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the more romantic posts of yesteryear (and yesterweek) to commemorate this season of love:
“The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’” – Hector Berlioz is my Romantic Era composer spirit animal, although I’m way more restrained them him. He was so lovesick over the Shakespearean actress Harriett Smithson, he wrote an entire symphony for and about her. In his Symphonie Fantastique, the main character is so lovesick over his beloved, he takes an overdose of opium in attempt to commit suicide. Instead, he enters a fevered, drugged dream, in which his beloved is portrayed as a fixed musical idea. When Harriett Smithson heard the symphony, she finally heard out Berlioz’s marriage proposals, and the two were wed—quite unhappily—for a few years before it all came crashing down.
“Alone” – In retrospect, I think this post was a bit of whining on my own part, and throwing myself a pity party. That said, my diagnosis of the current ills and travails of the modern dating scene are quite accurate. It’s probably better being alone.