Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number Three in F Major

I listened to Brahms’ Symphony Number 3 the other day. I couldn’t remember the last time I had listened to it, which astounded me, because it has one of the most beautiful and stirring movements of any piece of music I know. I am referring to the third movement, marked “poco allegro.” The entire symphony is masterfully orchestrated, but in the third movement Brahms really managed to use every instrument to evoke such strong emotions. It is a quite, meditative movement, which some might consider a bit sad. But it has a flowing, lyrical quality to it that really is sublime.

I first heard it back in 1975, and can just picture myself sitting in my dorm room listening to this and feeling sorry for myself. And now as I listen to it again, I feel those same emotions welling back up. Is that bad? So many people hurt and don’t acknowledge it and shove their pain down to get on with their lives. Sooner or later, however, it will bubble up and then they will explode, have a stress related illness, hurt someone, or their beloved will leave because they’ve become so shut down.

So don’t be afraid of sad music. It can be as therapeutic for you as it was for the composer who wrote it.

For me, I have strong association with Brahm’s symphonies and death. Why? Because during the spring of 1975, when I was living in the French House and had become taken with all of Brahm’s symphonies, my father’s best friend died. We called him Uncle Steve, though he wasn’t our uncle at all. But he and my father had grown up together during the Great Depression and they had worked together for nearly 30 years in the same factory in South Bend, Indiana.

In my youth, no one ever taught me how to deal with the death. Oh, I had been to my share of funerals, which, in my family’s tradition, consisted of open-casket viewings, a trip in the cortege to the cemetery, and afterwards, a large meal. When we viewed the body, however, most adults stood around stoically and discussion was limited usually whether or not the person looked natural or how death had come.

When paternal grandmother died, my father went up and gave her a final kiss before they closed the lid. I think my older brother, Ken, later remarked on how odd that was. Later during the church service, my father broke down and wept.

For us kids, the scores of cousins on either side of my father’s Hungarian and mother’s Belgian extended families, a funeral was a chance to get together and play, tell jokes and otherwise run rampant. I remember after my paternal grandfather’s funeral playing hide and seek in the church above the basement where the meal was being held. The reverend came up and told us to stop. Maybe this just goes to show how one’s developmental age only makes one able to process certain concepts and emotions. Unless the child was close to the adult who died, which wasn’t the case with my father’s parents, then the grieving process might not even be relevant.

For example, how many children are able to understand the concept of finality and irrevocable loss? Still, I remember having a recurring, disturbing dream for many years in which I felt a sense of dread as I saw myself approaching my grandfather’s bier. These dreams certainly were exacerbated by one funeral I attended as a young boy, which did shock me.

My father had a step cousin who had a son. I had never met the son, so I did not think anything of it one day when my father announced that he and I were going to the son’s funeral. When we got to the funeral home, however, I was shocked to see that the body in the casket was no larger than my own. He was my age-about eight. I distinctly remember being freaked out as my father took me up to kneel beside the casket and say a prayer. The undertaker had arranged the hands in a praying position and entwined a rosary through the fingers. Seeing the boy there scared me more than anything has ever done either before or after. And I notice I have butterflies in my stomach as I write about the event right now, as an adult of 59 years.

For years thereafter death scared me. It still does a bit, but less so now after reading about the death and dying process. I had to do that after my own daughter–when she reached the age of 6 or 7-started asking me about the ways people can die. What I learned in my readings is that there are age-appropriate approaches one can take to help a child deal with death, and I wished someone had used some of them on me when I was a child.

I guess I can’t really blame my parents for this–although for a long time I did. My father had two sisters, one of whom died shortly after being born and the other when she was about 14. This was in the 1920s when infant mortality in immigrant communities was pretty high and before they had developed vaccines for all the major childhood illnesses. Since death was such a matter-of-fact part of everyday life back then, people were probably just expected to get on with their life. In the West, we have it pretty cushy and our long life spans mean that you can hide old people away and have them die without disturbing things. Our cults of health and individualism have also made us think somehow that we’re immortal or that “death is optional.”

As a child, I loved to go to Uncle Steve’s house. It lay about 15 miles way out near South Bend’s airport in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain that had been formed by draining the Kankakee marsh. His house sat on the edge of a huge farm that grew corn and near another where a family had a huge peppermint oil farm. On summer visits to Uncle Steve’s, you could smell the peppermint wafting across the field.

What I liked best, however, was Uncle Steve’s house. I remember the house having a cathedral ceiling and along one wall, it was all glass and Steve had filled every surface with plants, so that it looked like a green house. But what I liked best was that it was chock-a-block with all kinds of knick-knacks and curios. It reminded me a bit of the Adam’s Family’s house–there was a footstool made from an elephant’s foot and a manic cuckoo clock, which all kids love. Steve was a kind man who always joked with us and his wife, Ann, always had wonderful Hungarian pastries on hand for us.

In 1975, on a call back home, my mother informed me that Uncle Steve was dying. He had colon cancer and he was slipping fast. She said my father had spent many evening bedside and during a later call she said Dad was pretty devastated when Uncle Steve eventually died. Dad did share how grizzly the end was with me.

Why am I telling you this? Uncle Steve died nearly 40 years ago. He wasn’t famous, or important, or particularly altruistic. Why should you care? Yet, this is what life is all about. It’s about the small sphere of influence we operate in and the people who matter to us. That’s what’s really important–how we love and treat and take care of these people. Why, then, do we care more about the death of an inbred princess who smashes her Mercedes into a bridge abutment with her lover than we care for a young girl raped and killed and thrown into a mass grave in Kosovo? Why is princess Diana’s death considered tragic, when millions still die because of ethnic conflicts, starvation, neglect and diseases for which there have been cures for nearly a century? There is more tragedy in child labor and infanticide, which are rife, than in any bored Hollywood star’s sex life.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Brahms: Symphony 3

Miklós Rózsa: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 – IV. Allegro Feroce

This is day 18 of the A-toZ Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) during the month of April. During this month, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).  Today’s composer is Miklós Rózsa (1907 – 1995).

Miklós Rózsa was a Hungarian composer better known for the 100+ high-quality soundtrack he cranked for films.  Among his work in that field were Spellbound, El Cid, and Ben Hur.  As a youth, I was completely spellbound by the last two films and had copies of those recordings.  I loved the pageantry of Ben Hur, especially, but little did I know Rózsa led a double life as as serious composer as well.  In fact, before getting intrigued by film in 1934, he had a promising career as a serious composer and an early composition Theme, Variations, and Finale, Op. 13, (1929) was conducted by such notables as Charles Munch, Karl Böhm, Georg Solti, and Eugene Ormandy.

After he made his names in film, he became quite sought-after, but he was able to stipulate in his contract with studios that he be given 3 months off every year, which he could devote to his “serious” musical pursuits.

Even though my dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants and boasted of famous Hungarians, I never heard him mention Rózsa .  And, I’ve never listened to Rózsa’s serious music either until today.  Pity, because this fourth movement of his String Quartet Number 1, it quite interesting.  Rózsa had good relationships with and wrote pieces for many famous musicians of his day including Heifitz (violin) and Starker (cello).  I hope you like today’s piece.

György Ligeti: Atmospheres

This is day twelve of the A-toZ Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) during the month of April. During this month, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).  Today’s composer is György Ligeti, (1923–2006)

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, Romania to Hungarian Jewish parents.  His family moved to Hungary when he was six.  During the summers his family sent him to Budapest where he studied with Pál Kadosa, and he was heavily influenced by Bartok’s music.  During World War II, he and his brother were sent to labor camps for being Jewish and his parents ended up in Auschwitz, where his father perished.

After the War, he retuned to Budapest and studied at and graduated from the Liszt Academy of music, under Zoltan Kodály, among other well known teachers and composers.  Like Bartok he also conducted ethnomusicology research on folksongs.  When the Soviets invaded Hungary in a violent takeover of the country, Ligeti fled with his family to Vienna, where he became a citizen of Austria.  There he fell with the burgeoning group of anti-tonal composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen.  When he fled Hungary, Ligeti lost a good number of his earlier compositions, but he said he was completely devoted to 12 tone music.  Eventually he broke with narcissistic group of avant-garde composers and from then on composed prolifically.  He moved  to Hamburg where he taught at the Hochschule School for Music and Theatre.  In later years he turned to more tonal music.

I first heard today’s piece around 1968 when it was used in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, a Space Odyssey.”  Kubrick also used some of Ligetti’s piano music, Musica Ricerata, in his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”  “Atmospheres” is a powerful piece and I think a perfect choice to show bring an emotional drama to the sterility of space travel and the soullessness of science depicted in the movie.

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