10 OMG Moments in Classical Music

Click here —-> 10 OMG Moments in Classical Music <—–

A friend sent me this link.  I am familiar with a number of them–the Rite of Spring riot, the Queen of the Night Aria, and Spem in Alium.  Missing some Puccini.

How about you? What pieces of classical music gave you an Oh My God! moment?

Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number 4, in E minor

During middle school, the thought of going to high school filled me with dread. My older siblings had told me stories of how seniors made freshman carry their books, dunked their heads in toilets and performed other degrading acts on them. Much to my relief, because my class was the first to go to the new middle school, which was for grades seven through nine, by the time we got to high school, we were sophomores, and so we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hazing.

In contrast, I actually found a ready-made subculture waiting for me which greeted me with open arms—the swim team. Oddly enough, the swim team had a number of individuals with similar tastes in music to mine. We were the underdogs of the athletes—not necessarily muscle-bound like the football players or nose-bleed kings like the basketball players—and got attention by relying on our wits. The pecking order on most teams is determined by physical prowess, but on the swim team, you could also rise to the top of the heap by demonstrating keen mental abilities as well.

The year I joined the team, there were a number of fast swimmers who were to be admired, but the real leaders were two brothers, who had high I.Q.s and SAT scores and swam well—the M**** brothers. Paul and Mark (respectively one and two years older than I) came from a family everyone regarded as smart. Their mother taught high school English and the father, though a quality control engineer in a factory, had gone to the University of Chicago for two years on the G.I. Bill after World War II. They had three bright sisters as well: a set of twins my age and a little sister two years younger. Some of us used to rendez-vous at their house on weekends before going out to parties.

Their household was completely different from mine. They all listened to classical music, read The New Yorker, discussed classic works of literature, and studied languages. This opened up a whole other world for me. I felt so uncultured in their presence that I devoted myself to turning myself into an “intellectual.” (Partly because I had a crush on one of the sisters.) I read voraciously, studied the works of great artists, and began buying or checking out from the library classical albums that the family recommended.

My three years in high school, therefore, turned out to be some of the most fertile in my intellectual life. The family  introduced me to quite of the few pieces that I will write in the next few weeks. Others I stumbled upon while browsing through the shelves at the library. And finally, our town was blessed at having two classical FM public radio stations, which I began to listen to religiously. My parents began to worry about me at this time, but I felt as if someone was giving my brain a massage and I had to make up for lost time.

One of the first pieces I remember the Mankowski’s telling me about was Brahm’s Fourth Symphony. The recording they had was by Carlo Maria Giulini, who had taken over the baton of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after Fritz Reiner died. The daughters pointed out to me that the rock group “Yes” had done a synthesized version on one of their albums, and the parents didn’t seem to particularly mind. The third movement is a marked allegro giocoso or “fast and jocose,” and to me embodies ebullience and joy. I also love the first movement, which seethes with passion and near climaxes that reminded me of the constant crushes I experienced as hormones began coursing seriously through my adolescent body. Brahms was probably the greatest Romantic composer that lived and many of his pieces have a movement that nearly reduces me to tears. The second movement does that to me, and though the last movement is entitled allegro energico e passionato its energy makes the symphony end with an upbeat, happy feeling.

Though I pretty much lost touch with the family  after I graduated from college, I think of them often, and wonder how much duller my life would have been not having met them. They will resurface in these pages as I write about other pieces I discovered in their company. I am eternally in their debt.

Rite of Spring Turns 100!

May 29, 2013: 100th Birthday of Rite of Spring
One of my favorite composers. The RofS is still as brilliant, stunning and fresh as it was when it blew the doors open at the Opera de Paris in 1913.

Wednesday, May 29 will mark the 100 anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

So why do we care?

Because this premiere was a game-changer. Many scholars would argue that, along with the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, no other work in this history of Western music had the seismic effect that Rite of Spring had at its premiere.

What happened at the premiere?

Stravinsky’s conception for Rite came to him as he was finishing The Firebird in 1910. He had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite; wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” Stravinsky knew that Nicholas Roerich, a friend who was an archeologist and an authority on the ancient Slavs, would be interested in his idea, and he mentioned it to him. Stravinsky also shared the vision with…

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Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring Workout

I am so glad the 80s are over and whoever did this mashup is a genius.

Modest Mussorgsky-Maurice Ravel: “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition

Writing about music worries me. I have virtually no credentials as a musician or music journalist. My experience studying and producing music amounts to: one year of playing clarinet in sixth grade band, three years of choir in middle school, a semester of piano in college, two years of violin with my first daughter beginning at age 39 and one year of studying guitar with my second daughter in my late forties. Oh yes, I almost forgot–in high school I taught myself to play “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susannah!,” “Swanee River,” and the Polish national anthem on the harmonica. Truth be told, however, I have trouble naming the notes on the treble clef.

What’s more, I am scared to perform. That fear goes back to my sixth grade band experience and the clarinet. I got stuck with the clarinet, which was a hand-me-down from my sister who had played it in high school. I hated it for a very simple reason-I could not read music. Someone in my family decided I didn’t need private, lessons. “Oh, it’s an easy instrument,” I remember someone saying. “He’ll pick it up in band class.”

Needless to say, I didn’t. Band class became a daily humiliation as my classmates, many of whom did have private lessons, quickly outstripped me. I soon started inventing strategies to get out of playing-forgetting to bring my instrument to school or feigning a head or stomach ache. One particularly humiliating day, when I “forgot” my clarinet, my music teacher told me to substitute for the bass drum player who was out sick that day. The music started. I picked up the drumstick and started beating out a rhythm. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the march everyone else played. The teacher furiously tapped the podium with his baton and said:

“Kurt! What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Following along?”

“Following along?” he asked. “Where? Look at the music.” I squinted at the page on the stand in front of me. It might have been a mess of dots and lines as far as I was concerned. Mark Balin, on the snare drum next to me, came to my rescue. He pointed to the bass line.

“See it?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, smiling and nodding at the teacher, who picked up the baton and gave the downbeat to start again. I think I was even worse and everyone laughed. Fortunately the teacher, who was a nice man, indicated I could return to my seat. It was degrading, sure, but oddly enough the trauma did not kill my appreciation for all music–just band music. Especially anything with horns, since they were always the best–and noisiest players.

What’s funny for me now, is that I didn’t realize until writing this piece to day that this incident resulted in my dislike for most brass and band music. Baroque trumpet concertos send me up the wall, and I usually walk the other way at Christmas time when some brass quintet sets up in the nearby shopping mall and butchers some sacred carol.

Freudian psychologists say that all you have to do is realize the true root of your neurosis and it will suddenly evaporate. To test that, I tried dusting off a few old disks that I heard in high school to see if the truth had, indeed, set me free. The piece I chose was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In high school this piece was “rediscovered” in a way when the rock group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer did a synthesizer-based version of the Pictures. Though it captivated hordes of screaming adolescents in the early 1970s, thankfully ELP’s version has been allowed to die a quiet death.

While written for piano by the composer, the symphonic version that you hear now was actually orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, about forty years after Mussorgsky’s death. The orchestral piece starts out with a rousing brass section that represents the general impression the composer had walking into an exhibition of paintings by his friend, a little-remembered artist named Victor Hartmann. I am pleased to say that though sometimes a bit brooding, there are some quite memorable melodies in this piece. And though the opening phrase is much quoted, to the point of being a bit hackneyed, it still is good for rousing the spirits.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Kiev and went to visit the Great Gate, which is the selection above. It’s a reconstruction and sits at the edge of a delightful park with a fountain surrounded by cafe under chestnut trees. He’s a snapshot:

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So my little test seems to have proved Freud correct. Mussorgsky has cured me. My fear of brass music, caused by childhood performance anxiety has all but evaporated. I’m a changed man. Still I have to tell you, I’m not going to push my luck, so I’ll leave the Canadian Brass for another day

Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony Number 9, Third Movement

In 2002, Beethoven’s Ninth symphony was was added to the UN’s World Heritage list.  It was the first musical score to receive that honor.  It’s his greatest, most performed and most popular work.  One of the things that makes it so, is the catchy fourth movement in which Beethoven set to music a poem by Frederich Schiller, namely his “Ode To Joy.”  If I could hum it to you now, you’d instantly know it as it is one of the most recognizable pieces on earth (in the West, I suppose).

It’s too bad, it’s so popular though, and I wonder whether it might overshadow the symphony’s other movements.  If so, that’s a pity because the third movement must rank as one of the most moving, passionate pieces ever written.  Here, take a listen:

In this piece, I hear yearning and passion and desire and profound beautify and so much emotion that it always enraptures me.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony Number 9, Second Movement

It may seem a cheat to break up a symphony and write about just one movement at a time. In many cases, however, I heard just a part of a work used in a film or on a television show. Often I did not learn the name of the work until later—sometimes much, much later. For example, at 18 I first heard a haunting, eastern kind of melody that became associated in my mind with Arabian market places. In the fall of 1998, some 25 years later, my daughter ended up playing it in the county youth orchestra. It was the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah.

Beethoven’s music has appeared quoted in just about everything from car commercials to futuristic films. I heard the second movement of the Ninth Symphony because back in the 1960s the National Broadcasting Corporation used it as the theme for its nightly Huntley-Brinkley News Report. It got everyone’s attention, and even my parent knew it was Beethoven but not what it was called. It was my swim coach who told me.

My parents made me swim competitively from the age of eight until my senior year of high school. When I started competing, I perceived myself as being overweight and had a negative self-image. Neither was I a particularly fast swimmer and so swimming in races always filled me with the dread of humiliation. If I placed, it was always third, and to make matters worse, my coaches always made me swim butterfly, which is one of the most demanding strokes. So swimming always held bad associations for me, though things changed a bit in high school.

We called our high-school swim coach “Herr Green,” because he also taught the German language classes. I don’t know how he got interested in German, since he was a Korean war veteran, and since I studied French, I have no way of knowing how good his German was. But he was a great coach, and his was the first team I ever felt part of. The reason was basketball.

Basketball was big in Indiana, and our high-school basketball team was one of the better ones in the northern part of the state. The players on our basketball team were treated like, and acted like, gods. The school constantly held pep rallies for them; they kept to themselves; they always dated the prettiest girls, usually the cheerleaders.

We swimmers on the other hand were largely ignored by the rest of the school. The basketball coach taught American history and once told me that if swimming was as popular as basketball, we’d have gotten the money we needed to build a modern swimming pool to replace our cavernous, noisy and tiny one. For this reason, we swimmers played the role of the underdog, the subversive and marginalized. We thought of ourselves as the intellectuals among the athletes, and we tried, at every opportunity to undermine school spirit.

Herr Green did not encourage us in this role, but he provided a haven for us. On weekends, a number of would go to his house to talk, watch television, sit by the fire, and eat popcorn. Herr Green was the first adult who treated us like adults—an avuncular role I now see in retrospect. He always sat in a lazy-boy chair, smoking his pipe and making pronouncement on politics, books, and German culture. Sometimes he sat patiently listening to us rant and rave about the things in our lives, never telling us we were wrong but always offering some insight. He was a terrible punster and would sit for hours brewing up some gem that he’d deliver to be met by our groans. When I turned 18 the summer after graduating from high school, he organized a party to a bowling alley/bar over the Michigan state line, where the drinking age was 18, and he got me drunk, the American equivalent of the rite of passage to manhood. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Herr Green had an ear for music. One year he bought a banjo, and on our subsequent visits he’d perform some new blue grass piece that he’d worked out. When I began to take an interest in classical music, he overheard me talking about Beethoven’s music being used on the news and he told me that it was from the Ninth Symphony. The next time I went to his house, he was in an uproar. “I went to watch the news last night. To listen for Beethoven’s Ninth,” he fumed. “I had just settled in to my chair when it came on and I was all geared up for the second movement. When it came on, they had changed it to some modern crap!”

The Ninth is one of those perfect pieces of music. You could spend hours listening to each movement over and over again, and find something new and interesting. It is glorious, and passionate, and rousing, and sad and happy. The second movement is entitled Molto Vivace, and people tend to just remember it for the dynamic opening few phrases. Later, it became one of my favorite pieces, not for that part, but for another about four minutes into it. At that point the cellos, oboes and English horns have some nice interplay, which I became sort of obsessed with. I really loved hearing the oboe, and before buying a version of it, I checked out about five different copies of the album from the library to see which conductor emphasized that part. It turned out that two directors had done this movement to my satisfaction—Toscanini and Karajan. Toscanini had recorded it with the New York Philharmonic, but that version was in mono-and out of print. RCA did reissue it around that time, but they had switched to an inferior plastic, which warped easily and so I didn’t buy it. That left Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker, which, despite Karajan’s Nazi affiliations during World War II, I ended up buying. Karajan recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, which were about the most expensive label back then, and so I had to save up my pennies to purchase this disk, which ran about twice the price of the RCA Victor label.

Several years ago, my brother sent me Herr Green’s obituary, which said he had died of a heart attack. About a year after that, my high school wrote to invite me to a dedication of a new swimming pool, named after Herr Green in his honor. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. Though later our politics diverged, he provided a safe harbor during my turbulent and stormy high school days.

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