Bright Blue Music

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As a followup to last Wednesday’s post, here is another exuberant slice of musical postmodernism by American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961).

Bright Blue Music (1985) is a celebration of one of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of tonal music: the pull of the V chord (the dominant) back home to I (tonic). Throughout the twentieth century many composers avoided tonal relationships altogether, which makes the opening of Bright Blue Music, with its conventional dominant-tonic resolution, particularly shocking. Keep listening, and you’ll hear that this music takes great joy in prolonging the dominant, increasing tension and listener anticipation. For all of Bright Blue Music’s fun-loving bombast, the final, lasting resolution comes at one of the piece’s most intimate moments. A few bars later, the final chord evaporates into a surprise afterglow, heard in the woodwinds and string harmonics.

Despite an outward feeling of motion and development, in many ways Bright Blue Music stays in one place. It’s obsessed with a simple, ascending four note motive, which pops up in unexpected places (listen carefully at 2:25). The entire piece is in D major. Torke describes his series of “color” pieces:

you start by establishing a “room.” Then you move out of that room into different musical spaces. But in writing the color music, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in one room and didn’t leave it. I thought, what happens in life when you don’t want to leave a room? When you go to a really great party, for example, you don’t want to leave—you want to stay and celebrate that room. So I decided to do a composition in the “room” of E-major—which is a powerful green—and to celebrate that bright green “room” for all it was worth.

Since early childhood, Michael Torke has experienced synesthesia, a neurological blurring of senses. Musical keys take on involuntary associations with colors. D major is blue. Here is Torke’s description of Bright Blue Music:

Inspired by Wittgenstein’s idea that meaning is not in words themselves, but in the grammar of the words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain meaning; rather, musical meaning results only from the way harmonies are used. Harmonic language is then, in a sense, inconsequential. If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not use the simplest, most direct, and (for me) most pleasureable: I and V chords; tonic and dominant. Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

That bright blue color contributed towards the piece’s title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.

At moments, I hear faint hints of the Spanish flourishes of Manuel de Falla. See if you agree. This is David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony:

Christopher Rouse’s First Symphony

composer Christopher Rouse
American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949)

From the first, haunting strands of its spine-chilling opening, Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1 inhabits a world of darkness and terror. Its titanic forces rise out of, and then sink back into, an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual gloom. It shows us the strange beauty embodied in brooding darkness, hopelessness and despair, and concludes without delivering the kind of reassurance we would like.

Completed in the summer of 1986, the work was written for the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman. Like Samuel Barber’s First Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh, Rouse’s symphony unfolds in one movement, although it’s divided into sections which resemble traditional symphonic movements. If you’re not offended by the limitations of labels, you can put Christopher Rouse, who has served on the faculties of both the Eastman and Juilliard schools, into the neo-Romantic camp. His music alternates between tonality and atonality, occasionally hinting at the rebellious sounds of rock mixed with Mahler. A year before the First Symphony, Rouse wrote Bump, a piece inspired by a dream in which the Boston Pops was playing a tour concert in Hell and demons formed a Konga line.

Symphony No. 1 is filled with ghosts from the past. As Rouse explains:

In my Symphony No. 1 I have attempted to pay conscious homage to many of those I especially admire as composers of adagios — Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman, for example — but only one is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, played both in the original and here by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). The work is scored for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes (2nd doubling both oboe d’amore and English horn), two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), four horns (all doubling Wagner Tubas), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), and strings. It is dedicated to my friend, John Harbison.

A few months ago, we listened to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. You can hear the majestic theme of the Adagio, which Rouse quotes, here. The short quote occurs towards the end.

Here is the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert:

While Symphony No. 1 directly quotes Bruckner at 22:19 (indirect references also sneak in at moments like 2:04), the spirit of Shostakovich is never far away. Notice that the fugue beginning at 5:48 is built on the famous motive which outlines Shostakovich’s initials. There’s also the mournful flute solo at 2:54, which inverts and develops the half-step motive from the opening. Like Shostakovich, Rouse’s music seems to continually strive for an elusive goal; and, like most symphonies, it’s always looking for a way forward…a new door to open.

Notice the simple, repeated four note motive (E-G-G-E) which begins around 7:30. As this motive progresses, it morphs into three obsessively repeated notes. It feels dangerous and ominous, like a time bomb waiting to go off. The motive, which starts quietly, grows until it seems unmanageable, exploding into cacophony.

Then, in the middle of the piece, we suddenly enter a completely different world (12:22). The searching half steps of the opening are replaced with reassuring whole steps (14:27 in the bass). This music, built on triads and open fifths, seems to float, providing a dreamlike respite from earlier darkness. But it’s only temporary. Soon, the spirit of the opening angrily re-asserts itself (17:46) and we’re plunged back into darkness and confusion. At 22:31, listen to the trance-like repetition of those three notes we heard earlier, this time in the percussion. A solemn minor chord provides a backdrop throughout the symphony, and it’s present at the end, momentarily obscured by layers of passing dissonance (24:49). The hopeful E-G-G-E motive is heard as the symphony fades away into eternal gloom.

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.

Tilting at Windmills

tilting at windmillsThis week my orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, returns to work after a holiday hiatus with Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Quixote, Op. 35. Strauss wrote some of the most virtuosic and technically demanding orchestra repertoire and this program is a great way to get back into the swing of the season.

Richard Strauss was a master of programatic tone poems, music inspired by a story. In Don Quixote, a series of variations depict scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la ManchaA solo cello represents the delusional Don Quixote who inhabits a world of knights and chivalry, hundreds of years after their existence, and fights noble but imaginary battles against giants and windmills. In his visions, Don Quixote defends the honor and earns the love of the beautiful Dulcinea. The solo viola, tenor tuba and bass clarinet depict Don Quixote’s comic sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote is a powerful and fascinating character partly because of his mixture of delusion and nobility. He would seem pathetic if it were not for his earnestness and transcendent idealism. Strauss’s music captures these paradoxes.

Let’s listen to a great recording by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. Can you hear Don Quixote’s good-natured insanity in the opening? Musically, a sense of mental instability is reflected in phrases which suddenly and happily end in new and distant keys (0:27). Trumpet fanfares (around 1:58, and later in the fatal duel in Variation X) suggest medieval exploits. Notice sound effects, such as brass flutter tonguing (11:12), suggesting a flock of sheep which Don Quixote sees as an advancing army. The dissonances we hear in moments like this anticipate the sound world of twentieth century music. In the third variation, the dialogue between the cello (Don Quixote) and the viola (Sancho) is almost like an opera without words. At 15:43 Don Quixote angrily interrupts Sancho’s mindless chatter and changes the subject to the glories of knighthood (16:10).

Throughout the piece, listen to Strauss’s dense and complex layers of counterpoint (melodic material occurring simultaneously). At times, such as Variation VII, layers of background sound, including a wind machine in the percussion, combine to create strange new and unexpected sonorities.

  1. Introduction: “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant” (0:00)
  2. Theme: “Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance.” (6:06)
  3. “Sancho Panza” (7:11)
  4. Variation I: “Adventure at the Windmills” (8:11)
  5. Variation II: “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron”) [actually a flock of sheep] (10:51)
  6. Variation III: “Dialogue between Knight and Squire” (12:29)
  7. Variation IV: “Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims” (20:14)
  8. Variation V: “The knight’s vigil” (22:00)
  9. Variation VI: “The Meeting with Dulcinea” (26:05)
  10. Variation VII: “The Ride through the Air” (27:11)
  11. Variation VIII: “The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat” (28:26)
  12.  Variation IX: “Battle with the magicians” (30:11)
  13. Variation X: “Duel with the knight of the bright moon” (31:18)
  14. Finale: “Coming to his senses again” – Death of Don Quixote (35:30)

As an orchestral showpiece, Don Quixote demonstrates the wide ranging color palate of a full orchestra. The emotional impact of Strauss’s programatic music comes not as much from the literal representation of the plot as from metaphor and a range of feelings which cannot be put into words. Leonard Bernstein makes this point, discussing Don Quixote in his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert, What Does Music Mean? 

For me, one of the most extraordinary moments comes at the end of the piece when Don Quixote draws his last breath (the downward cello glissando at 40:35). The final two chords which follow are dominated by the bright, sparkly sounds of the upper woodwinds. The eternal spirit of Don Quixote, perfectly summed up in these two chords, has the final word.

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