Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Creepy Stories and Music

Going along with our spooky sounds of Halloween this week, today let’s listen to a few pieces that are associated with creepy stories that you may or may not be familiar with. First up is Dvorak’s Noonday Witch. Inspired by the poem “Polednice” by Karel Jaromir Erben which was based on the noon demon “Lady Midday” found in Slavic mythology, the story behind the music relates to a mother who warns her young son to behave or she will summon the noon witch. When he continues to misbehave, the witch appears, terrifying the mother. In fear and attempts to protect her child, the mother holds the boy close, accidentally smothering him to death. You can listen to Dvorak’s musical interpretation of this terrifying tale here:

Another haunting story comes from Goethe’s poem “Erlkonig” that Schubert (along with many other composers) set to music. This piece for voice and piano tells of a father and son riding on horseback through the night. As the son cries out in fear of the approaching, yet enticing Erl King, the father hushes him to silence, not believing the boy’s story. When the horse arrives to their destination, the father finds the boy dead in his arms. Schubert does an excellent job at conveying the different characters in this poem. The Erl King who is an enticing character, sings in a major key in order to sound positive and convincing. The father too sings in a major key, ignorant of the impending doom of his child. The boy and the narrator, on the other hand, aware of the ultimate fate, sing in an eerie and sorrowful minor key. You can listen to Jessye Norman sing this magnificent piece here. Can you hear the racing of the horse’s hoofs in the piano?

Lastly, let’s listen to the famous “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Do you remember what happens during this primitive ballet? A girl is chosen as a sacrifice and must dance herself to death. You can watch a scene from this opera here. Notice the irregular meter and frequent alterations of notes and rests in Stravinsky’s music that help to depict this scene:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Horrifying Music of Halloween: The Dies irae

In light of Halloween this Friday, let’s talk about deathly sounds and spooky tales found within the classical music world. Coming up on Halloween I’ll even provide my “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist to accompany your evening activities.

Have you heard of the Dies irae? This theme comes from the Mass of the Dead and has been used by composers for hundreds of years as an underlying message or symbol in their own work. Today, I want to share three famous examples of where this Dies irae can be heard in the music of Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. First, why not familiarize yourself with this theme with a clip taken from a film that chose to foreshadow death through its soundtrack, The Shining.

During the 19th century, composers were fascinated with anything macabre and sought to incorporate deathly sentiments in their music. One such example is the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique known as “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Berlioz uses what is known as the idee fixe or “fixed idea” throughout his composition. This fixed idea is a musical theme that comes back in each movement, changing each time it appears in order to match the story the composer seeks to convey through his music. 

During this finale movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” Berlioz distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme in order to depict a dream of his beloved appearing at his own funeral as a witch. As you listen to the excerpt below, listen for the distorted sounds of the idee fixe in the E-flat clarinet and the Dies irae theme that Berlioz weaves throughout.

Another example of the Dies irae can be found in Liszt’s Totentanz, a work for piano and orchestra. Many musicologists believe this work was inspired by a fresco Liszt saw while visiting Pisa. Created by Orcagna, the fresco was entitled The Triumph of Death.

Liszt begins this work with the Dies irae theme in the trombones. This theme, along with sudden shifts in dynamics and the use of low registers creates a creepy atmosphere for the listener. Listen here:

This past week, we had pianist Andre Watts in the WGUC studio prior to his performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. When asked to name his favorite use of the Dies irae in music, Watts immediately told us that, as a pianist, Liszt’s Totentanz.

Lastly today, let’s listen to Rachmaninoff’s haunting Isle of the Dead. This piece is based off of the painting by Arnold Bocklin that Rachmaninoff first saw a reproduction of in Paris in 1907. The composer felt uneasy as he gazed at the boat holding a coffin as it approached the eerie island.

Reflecting on this as he composed, Rachmaninoff begins his piece with the sounds of oars in water using the dark sounds of low strings accompanied by timpani and harp. The music evokes a lack of direction and a sense of urgency as it progresses, the Dies irae appearing once the boat arrives at the island. This theme seems to win out over any sounds of joy in the piece. Can you hear the Dies irae? Listen here:

Join me next time as we look at creepy stories associated with various classical pieces!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What do you think?

What do you think? This month we walked through ways music appears in various video games. Do you think this is an adequate area of study in musicology? Why or why not? I would love to hear your opinion whether you enjoyed this month’s topic or not!

If you are a fan of video games and the music, what is your favorite type of music usage within a particular game?