A Celebration of Humanity

“Putting people of all shapes, sizes, colors…on stage together and presenting them as equals, another critic might have even called it a celebration of humanity,” newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett tells P.T. Barnum in the film The Greatest Showman.  This comment highlights what I love about this movie and two others that share its spirit.  While quite different, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, and The Music of Silence all have this common spark: a celebration of humanity in the face of social stigmas.

The Greatest Showman poster

The Greatest Showman

Celebrates: equality, the value of humans, beauty in all its forms, family

Premise: A man dreams of delighting the world with exotic shows.  With the help of his wife, two young daughters, and a lot of ingenuity, P.T. Barnum recruits social outcasts to join his cast.  Instead of hiding their physical differences, Barnum invites these people to celebrate who they are and to take their differences to new heights (or girths) on stage—to allow their audience to view the “wonders of the world” in a night of entertainment.  Full of peppy music, gorgeous sets, and breathtaking performances, The Greatest Showman brings this phenomenal circus show to life and weaves in themes about the importance of family, human worth, and realizing one’s dreams.

Further viewing: Here’s the song that sums up how The Greatest Showman is a celebration of humanity.

Wonder family

Wonder

Celebrates: kindness, looking beyond appearances, overcoming disabilities, supportive family and friends, inspirational teachers

Premise: Auggie’s dream is to become an astronaut, and he loves to wear his astronaut helmet.  One reason for this is because he was born with a rare facial deformity caused by a tumor on his face.  After 27 surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie is now starting his first day of fifth grade at a private middle school.  While a cheerful little boy with a devoted mother and loving father and sister, Auggie struggles with fear of rejection and being stared at by strangers.  This film explores how medical disabilities and being physically different can affect not only people like Auggie directly but can impact the lives of family members and friends.  I love how the film presents the story from different perspectives and highlights several characters’ personal struggles.

Further viewing: If you want to read a similar story based on true events, consider checking out the autobiographical children’s book Ugly by Robert Hoge, which I suspect inspired Wonder.  Here’s Robert Hoge’s TEDx about owning your face.

The Music of Silence

The Music of Silence

Celebrates: music, overcoming disabilities, family, inspirational teachers

Premise: This is a beautiful biopic about renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.  Born with congenital glaucoma, Bocelli (who goes by Amos in the story) gradually loses his sight and becomes completely blind by age 12.  Bocelli himself narrates the story, and the script is based on his autobiography.  The film depicts Bocelli’s struggles as he falls in love with music and then loses his voice.  His family, friends, and teachers have a powerful influence on his life as he attempts to find a place for himself in the world, fights for independence despite his disability, and tries to follow his dream of being a singer.  The music and cinematography are stunning, and the movie is touching and inspirational as it deals with a mother’s heartbreak over her young son’s suffering, Bocelli’s depression and frustration with his blindness, and what it takes to become a world-renowned musician.

Further viewing: Watch Bocelli’s performance of Nessun Dorma.

Discovering Diversity

Today, Caroline Bennett discusses music periodizations, pedagogy, and more, while highlighting the importance of studying a variety of musicians and musical styles.


Whenever someone tells a story, reads a textbook, writes an essay, or participates in a discussion, this person inevitably employs a set of preconceptions and a view of the world. In a discussion of periodizations in music history, historian James Webster notes that “periodizations serve the needs and desires of those who make and use them…This is so whoever ‘we’ are, and whether we conceive our historical intentions as ‘objective’ or interest-driven.”[1] Webster’s claim also pertains to the current push to diversify the study of music.  When historians or teachers decide which composers to talk about they have certain objectives, and the attempt to diversify music history is a direct result of the value that American society currently places on inclusivity and diversity. Although this is not necessarily a wrong approach to music history, musicians should be conscious of why they study certain people or compositions. Musicians can actually achieve greater diversity in their view of the past by not making diversity the ultimate objective. Rather, musicians should strive to study and perform music that was impactful at the time that it was written, that serves an important pedagogical function, or that is timely and appropriate in a modern context. This goal, though daunting, is achievable if historians, teachers, and performers expand their knowledge of music and apply it to their respective disciplines.

Maple Leaf Rag coverGiven the immensity of music history, it may appear unfeasible for music historians to talk about music that is not only excellent but also demonstrates diversity. However, this should not be the primary goal of historians. Instead, while conducting research historians should notice any information that is thought-provoking or could potentially connect with other facts.  If the name of an unknown composer is mentioned in a document, a historian should consider going off on a tangent and seeing where else the composer is mentioned or what pieces the person wrote. This may lead to exciting connections between the unknown composer and more famous composers, or occasionally result in the discovery of a truly great or influential artist. Additionally, historians have a second task: they should notice the time periods, countries, and societies that did not have many composers of diverse ethnicities or genders. For example, a prevalent reason why there have been fewer and less-well known female and African-American composers in music history up into the 20th century is because they did not have good educational opportunities.[2] Although this makes it harder for historians to include diverse composers in their writings and presentations, it is wise for historians to inform their audiences of these reasons because it gives context to the narrative and highlights the composers who did manage to overcome racial prejudice or social inequality, such as Scott Joplin, Ethel Smyth, William Grant Still, or Germaine Tailleferre.

Supplied with the wealth of resources that music historians share, music teachers can expand their knowledge of their instrument and its repertoire. It is important for teachers to be familiar with an assortment of pieces that not only come from various time periods but also have different purposes, contexts, and styles. This gives teachers an arsenal of works with which to inspire and challenge their students. Although a majority of the pieces that teachers assign their students will be by standard composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, if teachers are intimately familiar with their instrument’s canon they will have the freedom to choose pieces best suited to their student’s interests and abilities. Likely this will lead to more and more students studying works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and the like. For example, if a piano student expresses interest in learning a blues or jazz song, a teacher might assign “Saint Louis Blues” by African-American composer W.C. Handy. The benefits of this are twofold. Not only will the student likely be more motivated to practice the piece because it is appealing, but it will also present an opportunity for the teacher to introduce the student to a specific segment of music history. Indeed, teachers ought to always seek to incorporate music history into lessons and expect their students to become well acquainted with the story and repertoire of their instrument.

Amy Beach
Amy Beach

When musicians receive a well-rounded education and are knowledgeable of their instrument and its repertoire, concert programs are more likely to feature unique and lesser-known works. A performer who remembers that she enjoyed studying Amy Beach songs in high school will be more likely search for more good pieces by Beach and include them on concert programs later on in her career. This will in turn introduce audience members to pieces and composers that they may not have been familiar with before and inspire other musicians to study new works. Though not overtly related to diversifying music studies, this process will certainly affect people’s understanding of music history and eventually make a mark on musical canons. The story of how Mendelssohn’s performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the mid-19th century helped instigate renewed interest in Bach’s music,[3] though not an example of diversity,  certainly demonstrates the power of performing uncommon pieces. Even one concert can prompt more and more people to study music by an unfamiliar composer until that composer becomes an established figure in music history.

If music historians are diligent in following tangents in their research and discovering new composers and pieces, and if teachers assign a variety of works to their students and encourage their students’ curiosity about their instrument’s history and repertoire, and if performers constantly present the most innovative, interesting, and compelling works on their instruments, then music history and music canons will naturally become more diverse. Instead of making a conscious effort to change the way people view the past, and in the process imposing current values or agendas, musicians ought to encourage diversity and inclusivity via a different route. They should study and teach and perform the music that is most impactful, most influential, most imaginative, most intriguing. And although this approach demands much from musicians and requires a well-rounded education, the results will be invaluable. Historians, teachers, and performers will have a deeper, richer understanding of music, its history, and the world, and this in turn will make them better able to share music with their audiences.

Further listening: Seeger String Quartet 1931 Mvt IV and Williams Walkin’ and Swingin’


Footnotes

[1]. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Laura Artesani, “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers into General Music Classes,” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

[3]. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Ninth edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), 461.

Works Cited

Artesani, Laura. “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers Into General Music Classes.” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Ninth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.

Divisions on Dividing

We are excited to welcome back our guest author Caroline Bennett! Read on to enjoy her latest music-related contribution.


Music historian James Webster posits that, “One cannot think about, still less investigate, the ceaseless, infinitely complex flow of historical events without segmenting them into time spans.”[1] Webster was speaking of the Classical-Romantic divide in music, but structure in any discipline allows people to understand concepts for themselves. Perhaps more importantly, it enables them to share this knowledge and communicate with others more easily. Thus, dividing music history into distinct periods is logical. The separation between with Classical and Romantic musical eras continues to be useful because it allows people to easily communicate with others by providing the structure and context necessary to better appreciate and interpret music.

James Webster

Musicians can compartmentalize music history in many ways, and when appropriate they can use different methods of periodization. Ultimately, however, music history should be organized in a way that is easy for others to grasp. Although Webster is dissatisfied with the standard division between the “Classical” and “Romantic” eras, suggesting that historians label the late 18th through early 19th centuries as “First Viennese Modernism,” there are significant advantages to adhering to the traditional periods. Music historians do share their findings amongst themselves, but also with other musicians or students who are not as familiar with historical details. Thus it is important that the historical narrative be divided in such a way that related composers, musical works, and concepts are grouped together. The divisions should not be so minute, however, that they become difficult to understand or distinguish. Webster notes that periodization is like a story’s plot because both create a narrative.[2] This is a useful way to think about how intricate the divisions in music history should generally be. In a standard plot, the more layers and partitions there are, the less focused the intention of the story becomes and the harder it is for the reader to understand and appreciate the story as a whole. Novels with complex layers, numerous descriptions, and a multitude of characters are often worthwhile, but only inviting and accessible to a select audience. Choosing a simpler periodization may seem inadequate, but Webster acknowledges that “even if the understanding of historical phenomena that periods offer is always partial and self-interested, the only alternative is—no understanding at all.”[3] Music historians, when writing for themselves or for a very specific audience, should create as detailed a structure as they wish. Nevertheless, because music history is usually meant to be shared with a diverse audience, its divisions and layers should be more straightforward.

Mozart

Dividing the Classical and Romantic eras allows teachers and students to better distinguish the predominant characteristics of music in those time periods. Although concepts carried over from the Classical era to the Romantic, in general the thematic material, harmonic structure, and messages of the music were different. For example, Mozart wrote in 1781 that music must “give pleasure and never offend the ear” else it would not be music.[4] Many composers in the 1700s used music to simply represent concepts and emotions, not to actually provoke the audience’s feelings. In his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck wrote Orfeo’s lament in C major and if it were not for the libretto the aria would not sound sad at all. The orchestral accompaniment is rather energetic and the vocal melody could easily pass as a love song. Although composers did begin to add more and more feeling into their music over the course of the 18th century, audiences still found Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, written in 1803, rather overwhelming in its magnitude and confusing in its modulations and overall structure. The first movement’s development was significantly longer than the exposition and the coda nearly equaled the length of the exposition. Furthermore, the first movement modulated abruptly to unexpected keys and certain passages had distinctly dissonant harmonies. Values in music continued to change after the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, however. By the time music critic E.T.A. Hoffman analyzed Beethoven’s instrumental music in 1813, many audiences were beginning to appreciate music that made them feel uncomfortable. For example, Hoffman was very pleased that Beethoven’s music could “destroy” a listener and stir up a sense of “endless longing.”[5] This transition from Mozart’s view to Hoffman’s was gradual, so putting Mozart squarely in the “Classical” era or composers after Beethoven in the “Romantic” era is somewhat messy. Nevertheless, as long as teachers and students bear in mind that historical events are actually a progression, it is safe to simply label segments of the 18th and 19th centuries as “Classical” or “Romantic.”

When composers like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner are grouped together, people can easily make connections between the pieces, and musicians have an innate concept of how to approach the music. For example, some of Mozart’s compositions show the direct influence of Haydn, including his Symphony No. 36 in C Major, which audiences can more easily discern when they already expect Mozart and Haydn to be similar. Romantic composers are connected by a number of commonalities, but especially by the influence that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant had on music, art, and culture. In contrast to the philosophers of the 17th and early 18th centuries, who promoted the use of reason, philosophers like Kant argued for a more subjective approach. This ultimately influenced Romantic composers like Wagner. Not only did Wagner write more for his own purposes and pleasure, but he also sought to make his music excite the emotions of audience members. In Tristan und Isolde Wagner did not pander to the music critics or write what was popular; instead he used the harmonies and melodies that he personally believed to be the most effective in expressing the desired emotions. Because he wished to show that the characters were full of longing, Wagner frequently delayed the resolution to the tonic and incorporated unusual chromaticism. This effectively creates a sense of unease and longing in the actual listener. Because musicians are aware the Romantic composers typically sought to express emotions in music and kindle the same emotions in audience members, these artists can approach Romantic pieces understanding that they must use dynamics, rubato, and the like to create the composers’ desired effect.

Although Webster’s argument for a more precise periodization of music history in the 18th and 19th centuries has a place in analyses, the accepted Classical-Romantic divide is still relevant today. No periodization is perfect, but because divisions in history are inevitable music historians should aim to choose a periodization structure that shares knowledge the most effectively.  The simple distinction between the Classical and Romantic era is easy for audiences to grasp—whether they are musicians or not—because of the contextual information that it instantly provides. This means that people can more easily make connections between composers, compositions, and historical events. Consequently, audiences will have a richer understanding and appreciation of music.

Works Cited

Hoffman, E.T.A. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 1193-98. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “Letters to His Father.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 965-70. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.


1. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Webster, “Between Enlightenment,” 110.

[3]. Ibid., 114.

[4]. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Letters to His Father,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 967.

[5]. E.T.A. Hoffman, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 1194.

Manufactured Drama

We all know that scene in the movie or TV show. Some great change has come, or is about to come, to the protagonist’s world. The music, which can be either diegetic or non-diegetic (there’s your two million-dollar words for the day), slowly swells. Before you know it, our protagonist is contemplating their life while wandering around an empty house, or while staring off into the distance as neon lights go by, or while listening to the waves crash on the shore, or while watching the sun and wind flicker through green leaves. If it’s a popular enough movie or show, whatever song is used to convey said desired emotional atmosphere might even enjoy a slight spike in traffic on Spotify.

Then, of course, there are those times when we, the audience, just happen to be sitting in our car and gazing at the raindrops tracing their way down the windows. A sad song will come on, and we will take the opportunity to pretend that we are in one of those introspective film scenes. Or at least, I will freely admit that I have done so.

I will also confess these moments are not always, shall we say, “organically produced.”

The most obvious statement I hope to make today: Music calls forth emotion; music has power. Sometimes, more than once or twice, I’ve sought some sense of catharsis by playing the right song at the right time. It does not always work, as life is not a movie (fine, there’s a second obvious statement). Manufacturing drama doesn’t always go according to plan.

There are times that I’ve done it successfully. After a Year of Very Big Decisions, I sat at the top of a mountain, looked out across the miles, and very intentionally listened to Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” as the real wind whistled around me. I felt all the better for it. And I did some gazing and reflection again the next year, after a Year of Strange Changes, to Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone.” Again, the year after that, after an Eventful Year and It’s Not Even Half Over, I listened to “Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens, and felt, well, something like peace.

But these are the times when the stars align just so. My “headspace” was clear, so to speak. Very few, if any, people were around. The sun wasn’t overly hot. Other times, I’ll try to reenact the pensiveness one sees on television, only to be pulled away by a rogue mosquito – literally, the song had just reached its crescendo, and I was forced to divert my attention to slap at a bug. Or my own thoughts will betray me – eggs, that’s what I forgot to buy, I don’t really need them this week though, I’ll just have to remember to put them on my list when I get back, also peanut butter.

I wonder why I, and anyone else, might do this contrived musing to certain chosen tunes. I said earlier that it was for catharsis, and it is, to a certain extent. But also, if I’m honest, it’s because I want my life to be like a movie. I want to start the song, which is just a few minutes long, and, when it is over, I want my brooding to be done and the next plot point to arrive. I also want to be the director of my own movie. I choose the song, I choose the set, and I control the feeling.

I think this is mostly harmless, if a bit silly of me. And I mustn’t forget that some of the best moments of music-induced emotion, of that catharsis, have come through the power of shuffle. Something quite random, from my perspective, at least, chose to play “The Night We Met,” by Lord Huron, just at that time, and it turned out to be just what I needed to hear.

Sing a Song for Springtime

Green leaves unfold, flowers blossom, and songbirds line the tree boughs and flit in the bushes and on the ground.  Every day, the world seems more intensely green.  Driving home on winding highways that dip through forest tunnels and by meadows of cows, I sometimes see entire fields that are so covered in yellow blossoms that they glow like a splash of sunlight.  Without a doubt, winter has withdrawn, spring is here, and soon summer will arrive.  To celebrate the season, I thought I would share with you some choral music that reminds me of spring.

Immortal Memory: A Burns Night Celebration by Paul Mealor is a delightful album with beautiful choral arrangements and recitations of songs and poems by Robert Burns.  To give you a taste of the album, here’s the song “Immortal Memory.”

Acclaimed choir director and composer John Rutter teamed up with harpist Catrin Finch to create the lovely album Blessing.  The songs on this predominately harp album range from lullaby-like to peppy and leave me with a smile on my face.  Who would have thought that harp and bassoon could pair so well together?

And to finish with two lovely songs arranged by John Rutter, here are “What Sweeter Music” and the upbeat “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

Are you an enthusiastic traveler or spring-cleaner who likes to belt out favorite songs while hard at work?  What are some of your favorite springtime songs?  Please share in the comments.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Earning Pay

It’s a misty and muddy Monday morning, or was as of this writing, and I cannot come up with a really good excuse for not going to work today. I’m fond of my job, don’t get me wrong, but, well, it’s raining, and it’s dreadfully cold, and I don’t want to. None of those are acceptable reasons, even to me, and so I layer on my clothing, drag myself out the door, and tell my phone to play some music as I drive, in an effort to find some comfort in the cold.

What plays is this, my latest official endorsement for A Song to Stare off into the Distance and Be Dramatic to This October Morning, a song with a steady, if quiet beat, good for making oneself get up and go out, out of a sense of duty, if nothing else.

Schooldays over, come on then John
Time to be gettin’ your pit boots on
On with your sark and moleskin trousers
It’s time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman’s job
And earning the pitman’s pay

Come on then Jim, it’s time to go
Time you were working down below
Time to be handling a pick and a shovel
You start at the pits today
Time you were learning the collier’s job
And earning the collier’s pay

Come on then Dai, it’s almost light
Time you were off to the anthracite
The morning mist is on the valley
It’s time you were on your way
Time you were learning the miner’s job
And earning the miner’s pay

That’s “School Days Are Over,” the cover the Chieftains did with this band called The Low Anthem. The original song is by Ewan MacColl; the lay listener might have a chance of knowing a much more popular song he is the original writer of, namely, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” MacColl has an impressive pedigree, as described by Wikipedia, being “a British folk singer, songwriter, communist, labour activist, actor, poet, playwright and record producer born in Lancashire to Scottish parents.”

Contrary to what you might expect, “School Days Are Over” is not an especially political ditty – although the adverb there is important. It’s meant, as far as my limited internet research leads me to believe, as a more general lament, “a wistful song,” as I read it described. And that is how I feel, listening to it: wistful. Though what I have to be wistful about it comparatively limited.

I awoke in a nice, heated apartment, and put on my nice, soft clothes and my nice, new (!) boots, deposited my belongs in a nice, padded backpack, and drove – not walked – the ten or so miles to my workplace, where I parked on the first floor of a parking garage and then walked, covered the whole way from the rain, to an elevator that took me up – not down, into the earth – where I spent most the day sitting in a not uncomfortable chair typing, which is not a very labor intensive skill. I’m hardly a lad newly off to a life of backbreaking work.

Am I wistful about the idea of my school days themselves being long over? I never much liked school, though. But perhaps it is the more universal themes espoused by the song that’s affected me just so this morning. You are grown, your school days are over, time to be earning the [insert occupation]’s pay.

Well. I look forward to what’s supposed to be another long rainy day tomorrow.

Stop and Smell the Daisies

“Have you ever heard this group before?  My wife and I go to their concerts every time they’re performing within 300 miles of us.”  I had just sat down at the Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem concert when the elderly man to my left spoke up.  I explained that I was unfamiliar with Daisy Mayhem, and we began to chat about the group.  When the lights dimmed, the audience fell silent, and the four performers walked onstage.  In the concert that followed, I discovered that in rare instances I do actually like bluegrass/soul/American folk music.

While I enjoyed many songs in the concert, my favorite piece at the time was the Appalachian song “Singing in the Land.”  The style of the song was wistful, for it was about wanting to go to heaven.  All four musicians stood around one microphone, and Anand Nayak accompanied on acoustic guitar.  Arbo started the singing alone, and the rest of the group began harmonizing.  Then, bass player Andrew Kinsey, percussionist Scott Kessel, and Anand Nayak each sang a solo.  At one point, Kinsey performed alone on a wind instrument that had a mellow timbre.  When the singers sang about heaven, the music was higher in an example of word painting.  The song ended peacefully with the guitar fading out right before the last word.

Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem group
From left to right: Scott Kessel, Rani Arbo, Andrew Kinsey, and Anand Nayak

Since the concert, I have gone back and listened to several Daisy Mayhem songs, and my two regulars now vie with “Singing in the Land” for top spot.  The first is “I Love This City,” which is a beautiful depiction of how a person can become fond of a city—in this case New Orleans.  The song is lovely and resonates with my sentimental affection for my hometown (word of caution: there are occasional curse words in some of the group’s songs, including this one, but it tends to be for dialect purposes).  My second Daisy Mayhem top hit is “Roses.”  Arbo explained that this song was about a friend of her mother’s who began a rose garden in New York City years ago near one of the churches.  The friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer later in life, and when she asked her oncologist whether she should start spending her money, he told her “yes.”  So, she went on a cruise in Scandinavia.  A European couple on the cruise mentioned that they had visited New York City, and the woman asked them how they liked it.  While the husband had loved the city, the wife said that she didn’t really like it—except for this particular rose garden near a church…the very one the friend tended!  When the friend returned home, her oncologist told her to stop spending her money after all because her cancer was in remission, and she lived for several years longer.  This story combined with the music and lyrics of makes “Roses” a special song.

Many concerts finish with on a rousing note, but Daisy Mayhem closed with a meditative song called “Crossing the Bar.”  The lyrics are from a poem by Tennyson, and Arbo explained that her mother-in-law quoted the poem on her deathbed, leading Arbo to write a melody for it.  Arbo described the poem as an expression of “conscious dying.”  I think this conclusion to the concert represents a lot about what makes the group unique.  Their songs are often personal, tender, and haunting.  Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem’s music brings out the beauty, character, and joy of everyday life and reminds their audience of the seemingly unimportant moments that make life special.  Not only do these songs encourage you to stop and smell the roses, but they also encourage you to enjoy the daisies—humble flowers that have their own kind of beauty too.


Note: I originally wrote parts of this review for a music appreciation class but wanted to share it in an updated form so that perhaps others can enjoy the music too.  For those of you who aren’t usually fans of this mix of genres, I encourage you to give it a try because, like me, you might be surprised.

I Watched Jesus Christ Superstar (Sorry, Mom!)

One of the many controversial things my mom, coming of age as she did in the 1970s, experienced somewhat firsthand was the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s (in)famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I vaguely remember, at some point in my young adulthood, discussing this musical depiction of the last days of Jesus with my mom. Way back in the day, she was a practicing Catholic, and by the time I came around, she was a devout Presbyterian, and so she was able to give me both some idea of the original controversy surrounding the musical’s release as well as the dubious theology inherent to the musical.

So, when I discovered, about an hour before it was due to air, that NBC’s latest contribution to the live TV musical fad was Jesus Christ Superstar, I of course watched it.

First, to start with the good, I have few, if any, technical criticisms. To give an over-obvious compliment, Webber knows how to compose music, and Rice knows how to write lyrics. I’ve still got the tune and rhyme of “Everything’s Alright” stuck in my head 24 hours later. The stage design of this production was impressive, and performance-wise I don’t really have any complaints. This was a star-studded cast, with vocals from John Legend as “Jesus” (quotes quite intentional) and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene of course magnificent, and shout out to Norm Lewis’ fantastic baritone as Caiaphas. The relatively unknown Brandon Victor Dixon completely stole the show as Judas Iscariot (fun side fact, Dixon apparently recently played another famous villain/arguable anti-hero, portraying Aaron Burr in Hamilton).

In fact, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” Judas’ desperate attempt to justify his betrayal of Jesus, was one of the truly stand-out numbers to me. Dixon’s mounting despair as he begs Caiaphas, “I have no thought at all about my own reward/I really didn’t come here of my own accord/Just don’t say I’m/damned for all time” was palpable even through the distance of a TV screen. It was certainly a dramatization – and at odds with the Biblical portrait of Judas as a man who routinely stole and deceived – but, well, it was good theater. Sorry, Mom.

However, this brings me to the not-so-good elements of Jesus Christ Superstar. True to my half-formed impression of its reputation, the musical contains many, many elements that could, charitably, be described as “troubling.” There’s a lot of speculative relationship dynamics between Jesus and his followers, including, mostly famously, the maybe-one-sided-on-her-side but definitely-not-platonic feelings between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as vocalized in the hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” But this, what I saw to be more of an interlude, didn’t really affect my feelings towards the overall plot, so to speak. What very much did was this: Jesus Christ Superstar is distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a divine Jesus, ethereal light show at the culmination of the crucifixion notwithstanding.

I think the musical was trying to be all ambiguous about what exactly Jesus was, allowing some vaguely supernatural elements, but it really just ended up avoiding its own question: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/Who are you? What have you sacrificed?/Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?” And this, in turn, is because the musical, at odds with the long-ago angel’s question, is attempting to seek the living among the dead, so to speak. For, in this musical, Jesus dies, and there is no resurrection.

Interestingly, I find that Godspell, another musical depiction of Jesus and his apostles, also debuting on stage in 1971 – apparently this sort of thing was in vogue at the time? – to be, despite its hippy sensibilities, a more overtly religious and thus slightly more accurate adaptation of the gospel story. As Jesus is on the “cross” (it’s very artsy, guys), he cries “Oh God, I’m dying.” To which the chorus echos: “Oh God, you’re dying.” Emphasis mine, for the switch in pronouns is very important here. Of course, afterwards Godspell doesn’t have a resurrection either, instead giving in and just sayin’ that it’s all about love, regardless of why that love exists, and that we should just let the little light of Jesus shine on through us. Although why the light of a dead man should mean anything to us is likewise not really answered – we are once again left to seek life in death, full stop.

But back to Jesus Christ Superstar. There are those who would argue that it’s a great tool for evangelism, and I’m certainly not saying that it could never be used as such. From my cursory scanning of the internet’s reactions, apparently non-believers found the crucifixion depiction to be somewhat affecting. Yet I would imagine that the musical would be better used as just that, a tool, rather than a complete text. For what these non-believers are reacting to is, as Mary herself sings, “just a man,” with Rice and Webber making heavy use of Jesus’ more cryptic answer to the question of his divinity, “That’s who you say I am,” rather than his many absolute statements, e.g.: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Of course, NBC’s production almost, though I think unintentionally, produced a complete ending. Jesus dies, his apostles reflect (sort of), the musical ended, almost all the cast came out for their bows, and then, with a blaze of light and heraldry, Legend – still dressed as Jesus – emerged from behind stone-looking doors for his solo curtain call. We can argue about any inherent heresy in artistic depictions of God at another date, but I think if it had then been proclaimed: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things,” then, well, maybe

Eh, who am I kidding.  Jesus Christ Superstar would still be a very iffy depiction of the gospel, and, like my mom told me, for very good reasons (this short little blog post actually doesn’t touch half of them). But I might have more unreservedly recommended this latest production as a highly flawed dramatization, rather than how I ended up putting it to Mom yesterday: “I mean, [watch it] if you want to watch it. There were some rockin’ moments, not gonna lie. Technically great, spiritually barren. Alice Cooper was Herod, though.”

Poems for All Nations: Part IV

This week, Caroline Bennett concludes her four part research paper on the symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlást composed by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

Vyšehrad
Vyšehrad

The premiere performance of all six symphonic poems in Ma Vlást was on November 5, 1882, in Prague. It was conducted by a close friend and associate of Smetana’s, Adolf Čech.[1] The premiere of Ma Vlást came at an opportune time, as Czech nationalism was gaining momentum with each passing year. In addition, Smetana’s audience was becoming more accustomed to and accepting of his Wagner-like sound and thus enthusiastically applauded the richly textured and beautifully orchestrated Ma Vlást. Though Smetana could not hear the performance, he was extremely pleased by both the attitude of the orchestra as well as the approval of the audience. He wrote to Čech shortly after that:

Adolf Cech
Adolf Čech

“I saw that the achievements of the players were realizing my dreams to perfection and that you were leading them…You gave me back my confidence that the mysterious sounds in the innermost depths of my heart will again make themselves heard.”[2]

Smetana was not the only critical listener pleased by Ma Vlást. Eduard Hanslick, a prominent music critic, was also delighted by Smetana’s ode to Czech life and culture. This is rather surprising since Hanslick, although a Czech, was very much a German nationalist. Accordingly, in his review, Hanslick twisted Smetana’s purpose for the piece to be nationalistic to Germany through constant references to German writings or people.[3] Hanslick recognized that Smetana was attempting to inspire his Czech audience to be patriots, but did his best to dismiss this important aspect of the piece.[4] As a result, Hanslick unintentionally revealed how poignant and applicable Ma Vlást is to people of all nationalities and ethnicities. The overarching story of the cycle—one of love for home and a desire for freedom—are themes that transcend time and space. In addition, all audiences have an appreciation for beauty, and it is clear throughout Ma Vlást, but especially in Vltava, that Smetana’s symphonic poem cycle is a masterpiece.

Without a doubt, Smetana was devoted to establishing and creating Czech music that could compare with the music of other European countries like Germany and France.[5] Czech musicologist Vladimir Helfert, however, notes that,

Smetana
Bedřich Smetana

“…Smetana is not a figure wholly limited by the boundaries of his own country. He belongs to the art of the whole world, for his works have worth for all humanity. His idea of nation and country does not rest upon mere jingoism or racial hatred, but on respect for the culture of others and on a positive and kindly love for all mankind. Here we come upon a trait which is deeply rooted in the Slavonic soul, as is shown by the names of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: it was because Smetana loved mankind that he also loved his own nation.”[6]

Smetana was a well-rounded composer who was inspired by the music and society he experienced throughout his life, first through his study of the music fundamentals and later through his sojourn in Sweden. He desired to create distinctly Czech music, but was unafraid to use elements from other countries, as demonstrated by the main theme in Vltava. And though his main goal with Ma Vlást was to celebrate his beloved homeland and inspire other Czechs, Smetana understood that his music was not just to be appreciated by his countrymen, but also by audiences all over the world. Its beauty and power have ensured that Ma Vlást has become a staple in the classical music world, and promises to remain so for many years to come.

Footnotes

[1] Bartos, Letters, 267.

[2] Ibid., 268.

[3] David Brodbeck, “Hanslick’s Smetana and Hanslick’s Prague,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134, no. 1 (2009): 29-30, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783129.

[4] Brodbeck, “Hanslick’s Smetana,” 27.

[5] John Clapham, “Smetana: A Century After,” The Musical Times 125, no. 1694 (April 1984), 4, accessed September 20, 2015, doi: 10.2307/963564.

[6] Helfert, “Bedřich Smetana,” 14-15.

Bibliography

Bartos, Frantisek. Bedřich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences. Translated by Daphne Rusbridge. Prague: Artia, 1955.

Brodbeck, David. “Hanslick’s Smetana and Hanslick’s Prague.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134, no. 1 (2009), 1-36. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783129.

Brown, Jim. “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State: Its Efficacy, Use and Abuse.” Storytelling, Self, Society 6, no. 1 Special Issue: Bhutan National Storytelling Conference (January-April 2010), 39-57. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.

Clapham, John. “Bedřich Smetana.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980. xvii: 391-408.

———. Master Musician: Smetana. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972.

———. “Smetana: A Century After.” The Musical Times 125, no. 1694 (April 1984), 201-205. Accessed September 20, 2015. doi: 10.2307/963564.

Dowling, Maria. Czechoslovakia. London: Arnold, 2002.

G. A. “Review of Smetana by John Clapham.” Music & Letters 54, no. 1 (January 1973), 85-86. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/734179.

Helfert, Vladimir. “Bedřich Smetana.” The Slavonic Review 3, no. 7 (June 1924), 141-155. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4201826.

Large, Brian. Smetana. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.

Newmarch, Rosa. The Music of Czechoslovakia. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1942.

Smetana, Bedřich. “Vltava.” In Má Vlast. Leipzig: Eulenburg, 1914.

 

Poems for All Nations: Part III

In part three of her research paper about Czech composer Smetana and his work Ma Vlást, Caroline Bennett has at last reached my favorite part of the composition: the second movement known as Die Moldau.  If you’re just joining us, here are Part I and Part II of the paper.

Kniha "VLTAVA - Libor Sváček" - vydání 1., rok 2011
The Vltava (known in German as Die Moldau) River flows into the Elbe

The second movement of Ma Vlást is perhaps the most well-known of all. This is not only due to its intricate orchestration, but also because its subject is that of the Czechs’ most beloved river. Though commonly called by the German name Die Moldau, the Czech name of the river is the Vltava.[1] Smetana was likely inspired to write about the Vltava when he visited the Šumava valley in 1867, and saw the two streams that join and eventually become the sweeping river. A friend later wrote that it was there that Smetana “heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams…and within him sounded the first two chords of the two motives which intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.”[2]

Without a doubt, Smetana composed effective motives for imitating the flow of water, but there is some dispute over what inspired the main melody of the piece, a rising and falling figure, often played by the strings, that symbolizes the Vltava. The melody bears a strong resemblance to the Swedish folksong “Ack Varmeland, du skona,” as well as to a plethora of central European folksongs.[3] Most striking, however, is its similarity to an Italian piece called “La Mantovana,” which also inspired the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah.” It is impossible to know specifically which of these songs Smetana was thinking of as he wrote Vltava, but regardless, it reveals his familiarity with different musical cultures and his ability to adjust songs to create the perfect melody for his compositions.

Vyšehrad
Vyšehrad

Smetana’s genius for combining melody with story is demonstrated throughout Vltava. In the opening bars, Smetana uses the flutes to imitate the first source of the river by having them play fluttering upward passages. Soon after, the flutes are joined by the clarinets, representing the river’s second source with a downward moving figure.[4] After the main theme is introduced, indicating the joining of the two streams, Smetana depicts the river’s integration into daily Czech life by reflecting a series of images—forests, weddings in the countryside—through an ever changing key center. At first the entire orchestra can be heard, but slowly the volume dies away as instruments drop out. Just when it seems that the instruments will completely fade out, a lively dance is introduced by the strings, as a group of water-nymphs dance in the moonlight by the water.[5] Then, just as suddenly, the key changes to minor and the audience is immersed in only the moonlight and the flowing of the river as it passes by ruined castles from long ago. The echoes of horns are a reminder of the former glory of the castles. The horns crescendo as they reintroduce the main theme, and the instrumental parts divide, signaling that the river enters the St. Johns Rapids. Leaving the rapids behind, the flowing lines of the music return as the Vltava enters a broad stream. Smetana has the river pass by the towering castle Vyšehrad by introducing the “glory” theme previously heard in Vyšehrad.[6] Finally, the music dies away, much like it began, as the Vltava flows into the Elbe river.

[1] Brown, “Folk Consciousness,” 48.

[2] Clapham, Smetana, 108.

[3] Clapham, Smetana, 80.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Bartos, Letters, 264.

[6] John Clapham, “Bedřich Smetana,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980), xvii: 399.

Photograph of Vltava and Elbe rivers from http://www.visitstrednicechy.cz/en/central-bohemia-the-central-elbe-and-melnik-areas/30/