What moves you about Classical music?
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mbriant

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Not wanting to seem like a cultural neanderthal (actually, it's way too late for that ), and having never truly developed an appreciation for classical music, I'm curious as to what exactly it is that moves the emotions of classical fans to such an extent?

With me, and I'm certain with many people, if a song is going to bum you out to such a degree it evokes tears, the lyrics are doing it.

Sure, certain driving rock instrumentals can sometimes make my heart race and the hair stand up on my neck, but it's never, even during the saddest, slowest parts, managed to get even the slightest sniffle out of me.

Is appreciating classical music more like reading a book? Are you imagining a scene or scenario while listening? I've tried that, and beyond parts of "Flight of the Bumble Bee", I'm stumped.

Does the ability to play a classical instrument help a person merge emotionally with a classical piece?

Unrefined minds need to know.
 
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scrypt

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Quote:

Not wanting to seem like a cultural neanderthal (actually, it's way too late for that ), and having never truly developed an appreciation for classical music, I'm curious as to what exactly it is that moves the emotions of classical fans to such an extent?


Actually, one *can* respond to lyrics in classical music. A number of pieces on my list fall into that category.

Wozzeck, one of the only operas I can stand, is based on an expressionist play by Buchner and the libretto was written by Berg himself. Mahler's _Kindertotenlieder_ (Songs on the Death of Children) and "Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen" are settings of original poems by Ruckert. Das Lied von der Erde (_Song of the Earth_) consists of Mahler's adaptations of translations of Chinese poetry by Hans Bethge. Faure's "En sourdine" is a setting of a poem by French Symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis has the text of a Latin mass.

But to answer your question, let's look at two pieces on the list that have no lyrics whatsoever: Mahler's 9th Symphony, 4th movement, and Berg's Violin Concerto.

When you try to imagine some scene or story that might be suggested by a piece of instrumental music, you're taking your cue from a form developed in the Romantic period, when literature was having a profound effect on musical structure: the Tone Poem. A tone poem was very like a symphony -- in fact, it often used symphonic forms in a freer context but combined them in a single movement. Examples: the symphonic works of Liszt (Faust Symphony), Berlioz (Fantastic Symphony) and Richard Strauss (pretty much everything that wasn't an opera or a ballet suite). Some of those pieces could get fairly literal-minded -- Strauss's Don Quixote, ostensibly a very long theme with variations, actually uses a wind machine (it's in the score). And while Strauss's Death and Transfiguration moved Romantic audience members to the point of tears, wild gesticulations and prayer on bended knee (in a concert hall, mind you!), I doubt it would have the same effect on modern listeners. You see, the tone poem doesn't really have a strong narrative form. It simply *suggests* to the listener a narrative aspect.

But that isn't what happens in most cases when people are moved by a piece of classical music.

Emotion can be a response to the perfection, sensitivity and complexity -- the revelation -- of an abstract piece, as it is in my case when listening to Webern's arrangement of Bach. But I'm not certain the ordinary listener is moved to tears by that combination alone. In the case of Mahler, one is responding to something else (in Berg, we are responding to perfection and complexity *as well as* that something else). The last movement of the Mahler's Ninth might illustrate this for you.

Like Strauss's, Mahler's work belongs to the Post-Romantic period. It shares certain literary and musical traits with the Romantics but is wiser, more caustic and autumnal than the work of the relatively uncorrupted Romantics.

When he began writing the Ninth, Mahler knew that he was dying. The piece was among other things a way for him to struggle with that idea. Throughout the piece, he interrupts various lush and emotional sequences with a jagged rhythm which for him represents the sound of a failing heart. In the last movement, Mahler takes pains to suggest several more death-related ideas.

What do I mean by suggest, and why can't illustration be done literally? Because abstract music, unlike field recording, is a non-representational medium.

When we watch a film like _Hillary and Jackie, we are moved by Emily Watson's *performance*: her response to loss. When her voice rasps, when she strikes the wall or collapses, we do not look to her performance for representations of heaven or a meadow or bumblebees. What moves us is how she responds to that situation.

Same thing with music: It has the *structure* of a logical argument, but its content is not narrative. Therefore it is not suited to narrative detail. In the Ninth Symphony, we are not watching a scene of grief. Rather, we are listening to Mahler's response to a tragic situation.

In the last movement of the Ninth, Mahler begins with a kind of impassioned chorale theme, which he associates with life. That theme is made of three descending notes, which in German represent the word Liebewohl, or Farewell. He develops this until it seems to pain him to continue. At which point he does something that is forbidden in conventional orchestration: he uses very high and very low instruments, with nothing between, to suggest the idea of disembodiment -- he is trying to reconcile himself to that kind of existence. But the music grows sadder and he cannot continue, so he returns to his chorale theme, which becomes ever more sad and desperate. But he cannot continue at that pitch either, and so the climax fails: it is interrupted by the leitmotiv of the asymmetrical rhythm, the failing heart. At which point, Mahler slowly begins to let go, and there are endless halting variations on descending notes. One has the sense that the symphony is supposed to end sooner but that he cannot let go of it any more than he can relinquish his hold on life itself. Yet he has to end it just as he will have to die. And so he quotes a melody from the Kindertotenlieder, in which the parent says that the eyes of his dead child have become stars above him: Mahler is saying that he will join his own dead daughter in whatever realm comes after transient life. Yet the music doesn't end there, either, because he *doesn't* want to join her, not fully. And so he hesitates a few more times before ending with three rising notes and a fourth that falls. As a musician, I can barely bring myself to hear those four notes in my head.

When someone says goodbye to us, we are better able to put on a face when it goes rather quickly. It is the hesitation, the pause of the loved one, that lacerates. You cannot know this from our list, but I have lost a number of people even though I'm relatively young: Susan Walsh, Lizzie Brockland, Edward McGranahan, Josh Kaufman, Mary Miller, Marky Sliker. One of them overdosed, one was killed in front of another friend, two committed suicide and the first two women disappeared at thirty-six and twenty-eight years old. But of all the deaths I've experienced, the first two are the most intolerable because their fate was never disclosed, their remains, never found: the ending never came.

It is Mahler's achievement to have expressed that hesitation, that sense of sadness and mystery, that haunts us when we must finally say goodbye but instead linger, stall, because we do not want to let go of the loved one, whom we shall never see again.

Berg wrote his Violin Concerto as a kind of requiem for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler's daughter, but in so doing wrote his own requiem as well. One can find a program in the music, but if it is there, it is sublimated to the syntax and structure of the music itself. The music is not a *story* of grief but rather a perfectly developed *expression* of grief. It is also beautifully complex -- full of counterpoint and perfect canons which never distract from the elegaic tone.
 
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Dusty Chalk

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I had a friend who had the following theory: we have a certain "saturation point" of emotion. When we pass that point, tears are what come out.

It's not just sadness, it's any emotion -- happiness, pride, even (as has been the case recently with many people) patriotism.

The thing with classical music is, it's an abstract emotion. Music for music's sake, but it's still an emotion. Maybe that emotion is "appreciation of beauty". But it's still an emotion.

Or maybe I just got something in my eye.
 
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Quote:

Originally posted by scrypt
I can't believe you listed those two pieces! I agree with you completely. Those are among the most beautiful works in the world.


Oh yes, they are. It seems you're not the only one whose favorite composer is Alban Berg - or who prefers autumn to those other silly seasons.
Quote:

I, too, think almost entirely in autumnal terms. (For the love of God, man, read my last book -- PM me if necessary.)


That would be "Distorture"? I am not sure I'd understand half of it, though. English isn't my native language. But I guess I will read it. It seems one-on-one marketing does work. Speaking of marketing, do you remember the carton the W100 comes in, and the autumnal motif on it? Are you sure you don't need a W100?


Sorry, I couldn't resist. After all, this is Head-Fi, right? By the way, what about your W100 review?
 
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scrypt

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Tomcat:

Nice to find a fellow Berg enthusiast at last. Berg and Mahler and Caspar David Friedrich! I've never been to Frankfurt except briefly when changing trains to go to a writers' conference in Berlin. I would kill to have grown up in Bavaria. I myself "matured" in Vancouver and Oregon, both of which have an overcast sky for most of the year (though Portland looked far too sunny when I returned to visit). Walking through a Bavarian forest a few years ago made me nostalgic for the woodsier stretches of Portland.

About the W100 review:

At the time I wrote it, I felt that some people on Head-fi were having a problem with my tone and vocabulary. I didn't want to hear it, so I chose not to refine or post my review, as generous as Pianoblack was in lending the headphones to me. To write a review and not get paid, as I usually do, is bad enough. But to have various people attack my style and personality on top of that made the effort seem misplaced. People have been nicer lately, so perhaps I'll post the review in the future.

To recap: I do love W100s and they *will* be the next headphones I purchase, if I ever speak to whichever guy on this board imports them for $220. Feel free to PM me, guy.

Dusty:

I'm not sure I'm following you. I made distinctions between several kinds of emotion in classical music and ways they might be expressed or might result in an emotional response. It's hard for me to tell whether you're agreeing with that or thinking I've said only sadness is possible. Or perhaps you're speaking to mbriant and not me -- in which case, my apologies and carry on.

It sounds as if you might not be talking about classical music per se but rather about the mechanism of tears as a response to what overwhelms us.
In which case, I agree that it can be seen as a saturation-point reaction.
Fiction by Marguerite Duras seems based on that idea. She also says that loving someone is the act of seeing them deeply.

One thing I disagree with: classical music is a great deal more than "just an emotion." People (I'm not saying you) don't like to hear that because anti-intellectual snobbery runs rampant in the States (and even more so in London). But if you read the letters of Mahler and Berg, you'll find out *they* weren't afraid to think of their work in intellectual terms.

But now I'm thinking you meant that the listener's response was, in a way, the physical expression of being overwhelmed emotionally. That is strange, isn't it? You put too many beautiful coins into the slot and tears pour into your cup instead of foamed milk and espresso.
 
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Dusty Chalk

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Quote:

Originally posted by scrypt
I'm not sure I'm following you, Dusty...It's hard for me to tell whether you're agreeing with that or misreading me and thinking I've said only sadness is possible. Or perhaps you're speaking to mbriant and not me.


Sorry. Yes, I was agreeing with you. I was responding to what mbriant said (which I've heard before, and would not entirely attribute to mbriant).

I thought my friend's very physical mechanism for something as abstract as emotion was interesting, almost allegorical.
 
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scrypt

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Quote:

Originally posted by Dusty Chalk
I thought my friend's very physical mechanism for something as abstract as emotion was interesting, almost allegorical.


I agree with you -- the idea is interesting, fascinating, in fact. The Rube Goldberg complexities of mental and physical interaction are worthy of endless scrutiny. Neurotransmitters and receptors exist throughout the body, not simply in the brain.

But your idea is even more interesting than your friend's: That tears *themselves* are allegorical. They are used symbolically in music, for example: in his cantatas, Bach portrays Christ's tears as jagged descending seismographs of notes, suggesting not only the listener's projected response but also the image of Christ that evoked Bach's musical response. These jagged staircases of notes are also Bach's *literal* response to the image: graphically notated tears, Bach weeping through his pen.

Your idea of physical-tears-as-allegory does things to my imagination, tempts me to set up a system of symbolism in a fictional post-Byzantine world: a system that results in florid complex laws of commerce, written language, aesthetics and social interaction: even the economic system would be based on tears. Perhaps the individual citizens would not be allowed to cry in public because the meaning would be different -- too lofty or obscene to do in front of others. Or perhaps one's way of greeting a fellow citizen would be to weep into one's hand and rub the tears into an acquiantance's cheek. No particular emotion would be associated with the custom -- the tears would be a matter of mere politeness.
 
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mbriant

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Thank you all for the insight. I'm beginning to get it.

Dusty: I did already know classical ( and most ) music is capable of evoking emotions other than tears of sorrow, although I'll admit a temporary lapse of Classical music equals instrumental music only.

scrypt: I'm thinking knowledge and interpretation of the classical composer's life and state of mind is an important part of understanding his/her music. Your Mahler explanation was riveting and appreciated. How much of your interpretation of Mahler's Ninth is fact vs. generally accepted interpretation vs. your own interpretation?

I'm embarressed to admit I don't go much beyond "Jimi was wasted, he wailed on that song, and now he's set his guitar on fire. Cool."

And with 99% of rock composers...even the ones who've moved me greatly, I don't even get that deep.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I connect John Lennon's last album to his life and state of mind. And Clapton's child died. It's a really short list.

Was the story behind Mahler's work common knowledge or of concern to anyone at the time it was written and first performed?

I guess I'm wondering whether the Mahler's and Bachs always had a personal story behind their compositions or is it possible that sometimes they simply sat and noodled at a keyboard and thought to themselves, "That's a funky riff..I think I'll keep that one."?
 
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redshifter

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mbriant,
what got me into classical when i was younger were these movies:
excalibur
a clockwork orange
2001
the combination of the images and the music was what made it click for me. "the shining" also has some wonderful musical moments. now of course i can listen to classical without the visuals (unless i'm seeing an opera or a philip glass concert).

some good beginner pieces are:
vivaldi: the 4 seasons
beethoven: 3rd and 7th symphonies
rossini: overtures
wagner: orchestral music from "the ring"

i introduced a non-classical listening friend to beethoven's 4th piano concerto and he was pretty overwhelmed by it. he called it "riding the beethoven bus" because it took him on an emotional journey.

it usually takes a couple listens for me to really get into a new piece of classical.

the only composer whose music can ALWAYS get to me is beethoven. there is nobility, power, humor, genious, and sense of expansion in his music that speaks directly to my emotional core.
 
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daycart1

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mbriant-

Good thread! In the end, of course, you need to experience this for yourself. I agree with Redshifter that visual images, especially soundtracks, are a good way to get started. Another good choice is the new dvd of Koyanasquaatsi (sp?) by PHillip Glass. But don't do this everytime; the best classical music shouldn't be tied to a single set of images.
I suppose the main point is that the best classical music is abstract enough to be philosophical and really illuminate (instead of just touch on) the really big themes: life, death, love..... THat is what drives the emotion and what is missing in so much music.

Scrypt-

I always enjoy your posts--content AND style. Don't hold back on the w100 review! I think Friedrich fits Bruckner a little better than Mahler and Berg--very fine stuff. Lately I've been listening to Berg's Op. 1, a piano sonata. Fabulous; in the style of middle Scriabin, actually. One of the best live concerts I've been to was the Alban Berg quartet playing Berg!
 
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dparrish

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mbriant,

There are a number of things that move me about classical music:

1. Tonal painting--when the composer attempts to paint a picture through the instrumentation and/or melodic/harmonic elements.
This is the easiest way to get hooked on classical music and is the way I first got interested when I was a boy.
Examples:
Debussy: La Mer (painting the ocean waves and sounds)
Respighi: Pines of Rome (among other things, you hear the sound of a Roman army marching--coming in the distance, approaching, then right on top of you!)
Vivaldi: The Seasons "Spring" (hear the sounds of springtime, including the sound of birds chirping)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral" (hear the sounds of a brook, the sounds of the countryside, the sounds of a thunderstorm)
Grofe: Grand Canyon Suite (The sounds of a mule traveling on a trail into the canyon; the sound of a storm in the canyon)
Holst: The Planets (captures the "spirit" of each of the
then-known planets).

2. Emotion of the music itself--this may be enhanced by an understanding of the composer's life in some cases
Examples:
Mozart: Don Giovanni. Mozart's only "dark" opera, about a rogue who pays for his crimes with the punishment of being swallowed up into hell. Mozart wrote this after his father died, and you can sense his grief. Of course, just about everything else that Mozart wrote (except a couple of symphonies/concerti) reflected his normally happy nature, which is one reason that his music is so well-liked.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (Really, his last 3 symphonies are somewhat similar) Tchaikovsky was a man torn by an inner emotional struggle (his hidden homosexuality) and it shows in the super-charged emotionalism of his music.

Rachmaninoff: Piano concerti, especially number 2 and 3.
Another Russian composer (who came to live in the U.S.), Rachmaninoff's music is beloved by many for its gorgeous melodies and unrestrained emotion. If you want to be moved by classical music, this is a good place to start!

Mahler, of course, has been mentioned. His music (especially his symphonies) is emotionally moving on its own, but is much better appreciated with an understanding of his life, as each symphony is autobiographical in nature.

3. Beauty of melody, tone, and form.
Much of classical music can be appreciated simply for the beauty of its sound--the beauty of a melody or the sonority of the harmony created by a certain group of instruments (orchestration). Don't forget that much of classical music (especially from the Baroque [ca. 1685-1750] and Classical periods [ca.1750-1810]) was commissioned by the well-educated of the day (kings, queens, princes, dukes), who had a cultivated taste for beauty. Their musical appreciation included an appreciation for beauty of form and style.

Just as the buildings of the period had beauty of style (columns, symetry, ornamentation), so did the music. Common forms included:
ABA
The most common form which is still prevelant in much
of pop music, where you have two different parts to
the music, A and B, and the A is repeated. This
correlates to the verse and chorus in pop music, the
chorus being the words/music that repeat. Much
of Chopin's piano music is a good example (Nocturne
in E-flat major, Opus 9 no. 2, for example).

Theme and Variations
This is a form in which there is a
main melody/theme, followed by an number of
variations where the original theme is altered in
various ways. (e.g., Brahms' Symphony No. 4, 4th
movement, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, 2nd
movement)

Sonata form
This is the major form used in many symphonies
and concertos. It is a variation of the ABA form.
In the Exposition (A), two contrasting themes are
stated. In the Development (B), the two themes
grow/change or are developed (similar to theme and
variations). In the Recapitulation (return of A), the
original themes are stated, often with some minor
changes, one more time, to give a sense of symetry
and completeness. (e. g., Beethoven Symphony No. 5,
first movement, Mozart Symphony No. 40, 1st
movement)
There are other forms (Rondo, e.g.), but these are the most important to understanding where a composer might be going with the music.

Of course, it takes some effort on the listener's part to hear and appreciate the forms. But as one hears what the composer is doing to change a melody during its development, for example, there is increased appreciation for what is happening and better enjoyment of the music overall. The music no longer sounds like just a long piece with seemingly no purpose other than a lot of notes; suddenly, the music begins to take on a shape and purpose.

Although hearing/understanding these forms may seem like a daunting task at first, with effort and a little practice you can soon be hearing the structures. Of course, one doesn't HAVE to know the structure to appreciate the beauty of a clarinet solo backed by strings, for instance, or to relish the climax of a long crescendo by the entire orchestra during which tension builds and then is released (Mahler is especially good at this). But understanding the form of a piece (if there is one--some pieces don't have the classical forms, or they have a very loose version)
is one way to increase your attention span to keep up interest in what is happening.

Finally, I'd like to say that all of the above reasons contribute to why I LOVE classical music. Because of the variety of different instruments of the orchestra with which the composer has to work (much like the color palette of a painter), as well as the multitudes of various emotions that are possible with such a wide range of sounds, coupled with the almost infinate variety in which these sounds can be combined into various forms, melodies, and harmonies, classical music has the potential to move the mind, heart, and soul in ways that are just not possible with pop music.

Yes, I love pop music too (I'm really into contemporary Christian and Jazz), and there are times when only this kind of music will suffice. But over the long haul, there is no other kind of music which has such a wide RANGE of expression intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, as classical. Each time I listen to a
favorite classical work, I hear something/am moved in a way unlike ever before--because typically there is so much to hear and savor in this music. For me, it's kind of like the difference between enjoying a Hershey's chocolate bar and having a Godiva chocolate bar--the first is enjoyable and I eat it up quickly, but the second has such a refined/complex/enjoyable taste, that I eat it slowly, so I can savor each bite.
 
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shivohum

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Beautiful post, scrypt. I enjoyed it.

Quote:

Not wanting to seem like a cultural neanderthal (actually, it's way too late for that ), and having never truly developed an appreciation for classical music, I'm curious as to what exactly it is that moves the emotions of classical fans to such an extent?


I don't know much about classical music. Though I've listened for a while, I do not count myself a trained listener. Yet I still adore many classical pieces.

As others have pointed out, classical music is so diverse that one cannot pin all emotional involvement on one aspect. For instance, I am trying to heighten my emotional appreciation of the music through a greater intellectual understanding of it, but I know that this is a lifelong task.

At this point, however, classical music moves me primarily by virtue of the passion of its melodies, the colors of its instruments, and the way composers so brilliantly build suspense and then explosively release it. In my favorite works of music, these qualities reach such an exacting peak of sublimity that I can sometimes hear within the notes the substance of life revealed: the essential Truth behind appearance laid bare. The music, like the vastness of space on a starry night, or the mournful eloquence of a rose on a cloudy afternoon, or the smoothness of cool water running down a sun-baked throat, is simply so penetrating that one is struck silent; description is impossible, only reverence. And ecstasy.

And then the world returns.

And then I am tempted to go buy more audio equipment, hoping to experience that more often.


In many works of classical music, I don't think it takes much to appreciate the simple emotional qualities that give them their primal power. Just some attention and, perhaps, some time. But ultimately at this base level of pure sound, I don't think there can be explanations or apologies for the music. You listen, and the music speaks for itself. If you don't understand, there's nothing I or anyone else can do or say that will affect things.

Listen, just listen, to a good performance of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet or 6th symphonie ("pathetique"), or Beethoven's 7th symphony, or Dvorak's 9th symphony, or Mendelssohn's violin concerto, or Bach's Brandenburg concertos... Look on Classical.net's Basic Repertoire for some consensus recommendations. I have a hard time believing that the sheer sound, the raw unbridled surface beauty of at least one of these pieces can't capture your heart.
 
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mbriant

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Thanks everyone for their informative posts. I'll be picking up a few of the mentioned pieces and will be listening with new insight.
 
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fredpb

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I have been moved to joyful tears consistantly with one piece, the final movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony. "ode to joy".
I like the 1960's version by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.
 
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scrypt

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Quote:

Originally posted by mbriant
scrypt: I'm thinking knowledge and interpretation of the classical composer's life and state of mind is an important part of understanding his/her music.


Not necessarily. It was my initial response to Mahler's music that provoked me to read about his life.

With time, I've learned that pieces which *bother* me at first can have profound effects on me later. I loved Berg and Bartok instantly, but Mahler and Hindemith compelled me to listen further. I needed to understand what I felt -- initially -- to be their flaws.

I'd heard about Mahler's 9th in music camp and looked it up in Grout's _Concise History of Western Music_. In high school, I went to the public library, got the score and the music and sat down to listen. I was actually offended at first by the lack of complexity and harmonic motion -- the stasis and emptiness seemed irksome and arbitrary. But my irritation compelled me to listen again and to seek out Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and then I understood. The Kindertotenlieder is perfectly crafted in a way that the 9th is not. It also shows you *why* Mahler chooses to draw out and slow down his endings: They suggest his idea of heaven and the afterlife, his sense of the eternal. It is a sound I noticed first in Beethoven's String Quartet in a minor, Op. 132 and in the Sanctus of the Missa Solemnis (though in Beethoven, the orchestration and harmonies are ethereal but the form is muscular). But in Mahler, the apparent stasis is effective in a way that is not accounted for in terms of sonata allegro form, which caused me to scrutinize his literary/dramatic purpose. Certainly, Beethoven wouldn't have allowed the momentum and harmonic rhythm to simply stop.

It was the sound of Mahler (and sometimes the libretto) that drew me in: the acrid irony and grief and reluctance is in the music. Seeking out his biography came later -- I wanted to know what drove him to write that way.

Aldous Huxley's listening experience was similar to mine. It came when he first heard the madrigals of Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa: He wondered how a Renaissance composer had come to sound like "Wagner gone wrong" centuries before the Romantic period. It turned out that Gesualdo had had his wife, her lover and their child murdered before writing that music. Which isn't the source of the musical meaning per se, but does point to why, for Gesualdo, self-expression demanded far-fetched harmonies; why setting the word "death" was enough to compel him to knot intricate nooses of descending chromatic harmony. Gesualdo's the Titus Andronicus of late Renaissance style.

I recommend that you read Huxley's essay on Gesualdo if you can find it. It was published in a book of his essays titled _Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow_ and has been reprinted in various collections of Huxley's writings. "Gesualdo: Variations on a Musical Theme" is the title, I believe.

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Your Mahler explanation was riveting and appreciated. How much of your interpretation of Mahler's Ninth is fact vs. generally accepted interpretation vs. your own interpretation?


Even populists like Leonard Bernstein have commented on these features of Mahler's Ninth.

The quote from the Kindertotenlieder is self-evident to those who recognize it and who also recognize the content. And don't forget that Mahler was a great composer of the song cycle -- he has already shown us his extramusical concerns in Das Lied Von Der Erde, The Kindertotenlieder, the Last Songs on Ruckert, Das Knaben Wunderhorn and other vocal settings as well. It's also in his symphonies that contain vocals: The Eighth, the Third and the Fourth (his most coherent symphony in the classic sense). Mahler is the great impurist of symphonic form. The failing heartbeat leitmotiv is also commonly recognized.

Keep in mind that Mahler had made his living as an conductor of opera. Wagner's literary influence -- chiefly through the use of the leitmotiv -- is everywhere apparent.

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Was the story behind Mahler's work common knowledge or of concern to anyone at the time it was written and first performed?


In Mahler's lifetime, I suppose people knew of his sadness over the loss of his daughter and Alma Mahler's desertion -- it was probably common gossip. But we have far greater access to historical rumor than people did then. I do know that audiences of that day had seen or heard about Mahler weeping uncontrollably after conducting the Sixth ("Tragic") Symphony -- the only Mahler symphony that doesn't conclude with a triumphant cadence or an airy gesture toward transcendence.

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I guess I'm wondering whether the Mahler's and Bachs always had a personal story behind their compositions or is it possible that sometimes they simply sat and noodled at a keyboard and thought to themselves, "That's a funky riff..I think I'll keep that one."?


Composition is mimetic, not representational, in essence. It is a response, not a real depiction, of an event. The clues I've offered here are simply signposts to lead you to the emotional content of the music.

In Bach, there is the motive, in Mahler, the leitmotiv: These constitute the riffs on which the piece is to be assembled. Of course a recurring motive might refer to an occasion or idea in the composer's mind. But the musical development of that idea is fluid -- it doesn't come down to keeping a riff but to developing all of its implications: for all the biographical effluvia that has been scrivened about Beethoven's Fifth, the work remains a masterpiece of development. You don't have to know that the main theme is also Morse code for *five* or *V*, but if you listen carefully, you *will* notice that B. wrung every morsel of meaning, every implication, out of those four notes. The same is true of Bach's Musical Offering, Art of the Fugue and countless other pieces. Even Bach's two-part inventions, which every child pianist learns, are masterpieces of development.

Since you like riffs, try this: Next time you listen to Bach, look for a mini-pattern or motive -- what you might call a riff. Then listen for the same pattern at higher or lower pitches just as you would in a guitar solo. Listen for the same notes upside down and backwards. If you can find them, you'll be amazed at the way the composer has developed his idea.

Good pieces for this exercise: the two-part inventions, the Goldberg Variations, the musical offering, the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ in c minor. Other examples: The last movement of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, The fugue at the end of Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1, which is a virtual textbook of contrapuntal technique. Preludes and fugues for piano by Hindemith (Ludus Tonalis) and Shostakovich might help you to understand as well. But what you really need is a guy like me to show you patterns in the score while you're listening. You don't have to be able to read the music, you just have to recognize the shapes.

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And Daycart -- thanks for the props.

I sometimes wonder if I'm writing only for myself amid various Head-fi cries for unadorned English and restricted vocabulary. Good to hear that I'm not, since I'm only writing what I hear: I try to be true to the sound-world in my head.

Friedrich and Bruckner are a good fit, strangely (nice call): the barren Bavarian tree with its nimbus of crows, the deserted castles that might have preoccupied Ludwig Zwei, could suggest Bruckner's dark and stylized sonorities. But Friedrich is also intricate, autumnal, disquieting and frightening -- qualities which I find more in Berg and Mahler than in Bruckner's glistening black forests and elaborately helmeted armies.

"Eismeer" is one of the most terrifying paintings ever, when you think about what it really means, why no living thing is in the picture. I once read that Coleridge studied Eismeer while writing The Ancient Mariner. I'll have to investigate that statement, chronologically speaking.
 
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