David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Are you passionate about passions? Then you’ve probably spent Easter listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Or, if you’re the kind of person who likes to impress people with his maverick musical taste, Bach’s St John Passion, Handel’s Brockes Passion or Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives.

And if you truly don’t care about what other people think of you: A Passion Play by British prog rockers Jethro Tull.

A Passion Play by Jethro Tull

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Me, I chose David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion this year. The piece is barely ten years old, but already a bit of a classic. I liked it so much, I’m ready to spread the word.

The story

You probably already know this fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a little girl who is forced by her father to sell matches on the street, fails to do so, is afraid to go home and starts to hallucinate.

Don’t’ worry, there’s a happy ending: she’s reunited with her loving grandmother … by freezing to death.

The Little Match Girl

I never really liked this story, because I find it a bit too sentimental for my taste. Seeing as I cried when I first saw Jack die in Titanic, that’s saying something.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first brilliant musical setting of a schmaltzy text. Besides, David Lang is a less shallow reader than I am. In the little match girl story, he sees a parallel with the passion of Christ. Not only do both Jesus and the girl suffer, they are also both scorned by the crowd and transfigured by death.

The music

This thematic parallel is why David Lang chose to compose the little match girl story as a passion, alternating between:

  • the telling of the story – an English translation of Andersen’s fairy tale text
  • poetic commentaries on the story – for which he mainly uses the libretto of Bach’s St Matthew Passion

The music is a minimalistic affair, with only four voices and percussion. Don’t expect dramatic timpani or excited drumming – we’re talking about a few accents by a lonely sleigh bell or glockenspiel.

Glockenspiel, used in David Lang's The Little Match Girl passion

Oh, wipe that smile of your face. There’s nothing funny about a glockenspiel.

The melodies and harmonies are just as sober. Lang builds his composition out of a few simple musical cells which don’t evolve but repeat themselves over and over again.

But it works. For me at least. And remarkably, the numbers where he recites the story make the biggest impression on me.

In a baroque or classical passion, oratorio or opera, these recitatives are the places where you can doze off for a moment – waiting for the next aria or chorus to come along.

In Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, these narrative fragments start out quite emotionless and monotonous. But soon Lang subtly raises the tension by introducing countermelodies, shifting the position of the voices so they create irregular rhythms, and so on.

To me, that echoes the girl’s descent into madness and despair. Until order returns when she’s found dead in the snow – definitely not rising again. A bitter, but beautiful climax.

Listen to David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Another great thing about this passion is that its story takes place on New Year’s Eve. So you can use it as a backdrop to your Easter and Christmas festivities. There are a few decent performances on YouTube. But the first and definitive version is the one by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, available on CD, Spotify and Apple Music. Enjoy!

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My Visit to the Handel and Hendrix Museum

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. First stop: Handel’s house in London.

On the first floor of the Handel and Hendrix museum, you can watch a movie starring two passionate and eloquent musicians:

  • a harpsichord player who sings the praises of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
  • an electric guitar player who raves about Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

But when the movie ends with these two jamming together, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. And that’s typical for the relationship between pop (or rock) and classical music: they have more in common than they think, but when they end up in bed together, it seldom leads to fireworks. The result is usually kitschy, pretentious or both. (Except when it’s awesome.)

So why would they force Handel and Hendrix to share a museum? Because fate brought them together.

Handel and Hendrix museum stars

Fate … and a timeless fashion sense

The story behind the Handel and Hendrix museum

You see, Jimi Hendrix lived in the attic of Handel’s house! Well, in the attic of Handel’s neighbour, to be precise. So they were divided by two centuries and a supporting wall. But that’s still a remarkable coincidence, right? (If you happen to be a statistician: I don’t really want to know.)

George and Jimi shared more than their rubbish collection day. They were both foreigners who made their fortune in London. They were both addicts – Jimi to heroin, George to food and wine. They were both musicians of course, and … that’s about it.

So I was curious to see how the Handel and Hendrix museum would fit these two musical giants together.

“I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.”

The Hendrix flat

Surprisingly, the Hendrix part of the museum made the biggest impression on me. His bedroom is decorated exactly as it was when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Right down to the packet of Benson & Hedges and box of Quality Street next to his bed.

Handel and Hendrix museum piece

Rock and roll!

It was here that Jimi woke up one night to find Handel’s ghost walking in: “an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail”. Did I mention drugs were involved?

You can also browse through Hendrix’ stunningly diverse record collection. And yes, there’s some Handel in there. After hearing about his illustrious downstairs neighbour, Hendrix said: “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and then.” He later went out to buy a copy of Messiah and Belshazzar.

The Handel house

Compared to that, the Handel portion of the Handel and Hendrix museum is a lot more, well, classical. You know what I mean: harpsichords in the middle of empty rooms, portraits on the walls, manuscripts in glass cases, …

Nothing wrong with all that, of course, but after the Hendrix experience (clever pun totally intended), I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.

Of course, that’s not the museum’s fault. We just don’t know enough about Handel’s life to recreate his private quarters with any degree of historical accuracy. But it does threaten to confirm the image of classical music as a stuffy affair. Especially when fragments of psychedelic guitar sounds keep reminding you of the cool kid living in the attic.

Handel and Hendrix museum bedrooms

Visit without prejudice

Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t so narrow-minded. Visitors to his flat remembered him playing along to his Handel records. And during the Winterland concerts, in Francisco in 1968, he inserted a musical quote from Messiah.

I’m pretty sure Handel would have returned the compliment, since at least half of his genius was due to cleverly stealing other people’s music.

So there’s at least one excellent reason to visit the Handel and Hendrix museum. It proves that – awkward bedfellows or not – pop and classical music make excellent neighbours.

Gustav Holst: Composer of The Planets (and Not Proud of It)

Are you one of those people who gets upset when Radiohead doesn’t play Creep? First of all: get over it. Second of all: take comfort in the fact that Radiohead is part of a respectable tradition of composers who despised their most beloved compositions.

Saint-Saëns hated Le Carnaval des Animaux, Ravel hated Boléro, Tchaikovsky hated the 1812 Overture, Beethoven hated Wellingtons Sieg, …

And Gustav Holst (1874-1934) hated The Planets.

The Planets composer: Gustav Holst

At the very least, its success left him in a permanent state of slight bewilderment.

The Planets: an unlikely success

The fact that The Planets was despised by its composer is strange in two ways:

  1. The Planets is the only composition for which Holst is widely remembered.
  2. Unlike the 1812 Overture or Wellingtons Sieg, The Planets is not a god-awful piece of classical music.

Holst’s orchestral suite is anything but a cheap crowd pleaser. Its musical forms are unusual, its time signatures often irregular and its instrumental combinations unorthodox.

In fact, during the first performances of The Planets, a few of the seven movements of the suite were always omitted. The idea was that the public wouldn’t be able to handle the full fifty minutes of such challenging music.

So why was the composer of The Planets later ashamed of it?

“The Planets seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar.”

Holst: composer in times of war

Holst wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916 – the first two years of the Great War. You would think that such an Armageddon would have influenced his composition, but Holst always denied that. His main inspiration did come from Germany, but it was a purely musical one.

A few years before WOI, the musical world was already in turmoil. Critics and public waged fierce battles over compositions that broke with musical laws that had held up for centuries. Suddenly, listeners were deprived of:

  • melodies they could sing along to
  • rhythms they could dance or clap to
  • harmonies that helped them to make sense of it all

In 1909, Schoenberg launched his Fünf Orchesterstücke, one of the first great examples of atonal music. Holst heard it, enjoyed it and bought the score. He liked it so much that he would name one of his next compositions Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra. Only later did he change the name of his suite to … The Planets.

Another ‘scandalous’ composition that influenced The Planets – just listen to the thumping irregular rhythms in Mars, The Bringer of War – is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which dates from 1912.

“Who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?”

Delicious mix of old and new

Holst was obviously excited by all these musical innovations. But that did not make him an avant-garde composer. In The Planets, he blended all these progressive elements and poured a generous helping of late-romantic sauce over it.

Or did he write a late-romantic composition and liberally spiced it with avant-garde elements? It doesn’t matter: the result is a perfectly balanced and extremely satisfying piece of classical music.

It was also exactly what the public needed after the horrors of the war: a composition that was new and exciting but also familiar and accessible. And with its more than fifty instrumental parts and two three-part choruses, it perfectly fitted the British love for pomp and circumstance.

Successfully launched into eternal fame

The emerging record industry also jumped on the success of The Planets. Jupiter was already recorded in 1922. A complete recording – conducted by the composer himself – followed in 1926. You can listen to it here. For comparison: Le Sacre du printemps had to wait until 1928 and Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke even longer.

And in 1983, the author of this charming article about “the new compact digital players and disks (known as CDs)”, hoped that very soon the record companies would put out something else than predictable warhorses such as the 1812 Overture, Wellingtons Sieg and … The Planets.

The Planets record sleeves

The Planets also proved to be a godsend for record sleeve designers.

The Planets: artistic anachronism …

So that’s what The Planets had quickly become in the eyes of the public and critics: a warhorse of classical music in the late-romantic style. It’s a judgment that deeply offended its composer. After all, who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?

It’s also a judgment that’s very unfair, inspired by the idea that ‘popular’ equals ‘inferior’ and that the only acceptable version of music history is a straight evolutionary line.

… or unintentional essay in escapism?

When you listen to The Planets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the unique sonic universe created by its composer. Because of the massive orchestra involved, its sound is big and expansive. Yet thanks to of Holst’s incredible talent as an arranger, it’s also light and transparent.

The result is music that seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar. It offers you a temporary escape from everyday life.

And that was not lost on an industry that specializes in such flights from reality.

From Death Star to Middle-earth

In case you were wondering, The Planets isn’t about space travel. Its inspiration is astrological rather than astronomical: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are character studies, not descriptions of big rocks in space.

George Lucas did not know that. Or, he didn’t care. Compiling the soundtrack for his Star Wars movies, he gave The Planets a spin. He particularly liked this fragment from Mars as the leitmotif for his main villain:

 

But he had no intention to pay any money to Holst’s descendants. So he asked composer John Williams to write something similar:

And John Williams wasn’t the only film composer inspired by Holst’s masterpiece. Echoes of The Planets also pop up in Braveheart and Battlestar Galactica.

And can you listen to this fragment from Jupiter without Middle-earth popping into your mind?

What would Holst himself have thought about all these bastard offspring versions of The Planets? Not much, probably. Though it’s safe to say it wasn’t the way he envisioned his legacy – if he had any vision of that at all.

But, as an almost contemporary of Holst – whose work suffered a similar fate – wrote: “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

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Can Classical Music Heighten Men’s Attractiveness? A Scientific Experiment

A couple a of weeks ago, this news came out:

Does classical music make you seem more attractive?

And it immediately drew my attention. I was particularly intrigued by this statement in the article:

“High-arousing (i.e., more complex) music affects the perception of male facial attractiveness.”

In other words, complex music is like alcohol: it will make you seem prettier than you actually are.

The researchers came to this conclusion after an experiment involving photographs and surveys. In the name of science, I decided to test this in a real-life environment. And I’m happy to share my findings with you.

Testing conditions

For this test, I first invited three blind dates over for dinner (never you mind where I got them from). As background music, I chose the most complex classical music I could find: a piano piece by Brian Ferneyhough. Mister Ferneyhough’s music is categorized as New Complexity, because – I guess – the old complexity wasn’t nearly complex enough. It looks and sounds like this:

Scientifically speaking, if this doesn’t put the ladies in the mood, I don’t know what will.

Of course, no experiment is reliable without a control group. So the next evening I invited three other blind dates (never you mind where I got them from). And his time I played piano music which is significantly less complex, by Ludovico Einaudi. It looks and sounds like this:

Good to know: to rule out any fluctuations in attractiveness, I wore the same outfit on both evenings.

Nerdy classical music T-shirt

I think it says: ‘nerdy, yet confident’.

The results

Are you ready to be surprised? The women whom I treated to my tofu-tournedos Rossini with Ferneyhough playing in the background, did not seem impressed by my attractiveness. The reactions I recorded were:

  • What the hell is that noise?
  • Maybe we could listen to some music?
  • Oh my God, you’re a serial killer, aren’t you?

The Einaudi control group, on the other hand, made encouraging comments such as:

  • Maybe we could listen to some music?
  • What the hell am I eating?
  • I think you and I could be great friends.

Still got it

Conclusion?

Best stick with alcohol.

Want to keep up with my classical musings? Then you’re very welcome to follow me on Facebook, Twitter or both.

Caccia: Music for the Hunting Season

Hey, it’s almost hunting season! Time put on your camouflage gear, load up your rifle and … settle down by a crackling fire and listen to some music. Those poor animals never did anything to you, goddammit.

After all, we’re no longer living in the middle ages: a time when entertainment options were limited and killing animals was an acceptable pastime.

The caccia was a piece of music that described the hunt.

Pictured: medieval fun for all (except the deer)

The hunt was a major theme for artists in the middle ages: it’s the subject of countless tapestries and miniatures. Their musical equivalent is the caccia, which blossomed during the transitional period between medieval and renaissance music.

“A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.”

Place and time: Trecento

If you were an art lover in fourteenth-century Europe, Italy was the place to be. Insanely rich rulers supported painters, sculptors and poets who added to their prestige. This Trecento was also the time when it became acceptable to write literature in your own dialect – instead of Latin. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio all jumped at that chance and earned their ticket to eternal fame.

And they’re not the only ones who did well. During the Trecento, the medieval craftsman was turning into the renaissance artist. This is the first era in music history for which we know so much important composers by name: Jacopo da Bologna, Niccolò da Perugia, … and the most famous of them all: Franscesco Landini. We even know what they looked like (sort of).

Caccia music composer Francesco Landini

Landini with his late-medieval keytar

Caccia: music that marries form and content

These Trecento composers specialized in secular songs: madrigals, ballatas and caccias. The caccia is a very specific kind of song:

  • The subject of its text is the hunt (inevitably mixed with some romance).
  • It’s for three voices of which the upper two sing (more or less) in canon.
  • It often contains sound imagery: onomatopoeia that imitate the sounds of the hunt.

As you can see, the form of the caccia is entirely appropriate for its subject. Because of the canon, the voices are actually chasing each other.

There are a lot of caccia music pieces in this Squarcialupi Codex.

Most caccias reached us through the Squarcialupi Codex. This page shows Gherardello da Firenze with his … accordion?

Listen to a caccia

Unfortunately, only about twenty caccias survived. What’s more, most recordings are a bit too smooth for my taste. A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.

This recording of Gherardello da Firenze’s masterpiece Tosto che l’alba is a great example.

That’s the way I like it: without gently plucking instruments in the background and with singers who are not afraid to thread the fine line between singing and yelling like a wild boar in agony (just listen at 1:10). After all, that’s the whole point of a caccia, isn’t it?

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Mozart for Managers

Imagine this nightmare scenario: seconds before an important meeting you find out that you brought the wrong presentation with you. A similar thing – only a million times worse – happened to star pianist Maria João Pires. The orchestra was already playing when she realized that she prepared for the wrong Mozart concerto.

 

Leading by example

One of the things I like about this video is the reaction of conductor Riccardo Chailly. You could use it to illustrate a management seminar: instead of getting mad or acting disappointed, he keeps his cool and affirms his trust in her. The result? Pires gives a flawless performance. All thanks to Chailly’s excellent management skills. And because Pires has the memory of an elephant, of course.

“Unlike business companies, orchestras are simple.”

An even better example is this wonderful performance of another Mozart concerto.

Do you see how conductor and pianist David Greilsammer is ‘a part of his team’ and how he ‘leads by example’? With a bit of creativity, you can match just about every business cliché to classical music. There’s even no ‘I’ in ‘orchestra’! I can’t believe http://www.mozartformanagers.com is still available – it’s a goldmine.

Mozart for Managers: the inspiration

‘Harmonious tunes for mergers & acquisitions’

Of course …

Imagine my total lack of surprise when I found out that this sort of thing is already being done. At Music & Management they “invite the corporate world to explore new ways of thinking about business practice” and “provide extraordinary insights into leadership, collaboration, creativity and personal development.”

The lucky participants of the Orchestra Experience are seated within an orchestra to:

  • “see and hear music being played from inside the orchestra, observe the role of the conductor and orchestral players.” Which sounds like fun.
  • “engage in an interactive discussion with the conductor and musicians about how playing in an orchestra mirrors the culture of a business organization.” Which sounds horrible.

Money well spent

Will this experience enhance the participants’ management skills? Probably not. You see, unlike business companies – especially the ones who can afford the Orchestra Experience – orchestras are simple. Everybody knows who the boss is and believes in the common goal. Each member has a recognizable skill and clear task, so nobody needs to hide the fact that he secretly feels unnecessary. That’s what managers should learn from musicians, not “the importance of creative freedom within the constraints of a large organization.”

But that doesn’t mean those seminars are a waste of time. Some of those people will surely walk out with a new or renewed love for music – never a bad thing. Because when the next financial crisis comes along, it’s good to have Mozart’s shoulder to cry on.

Beethoven meets metal (and they seem to get along)

In my last post about Tartini’s devil’s trill, I made a joke about crossover artist Vanessa-Mae. This amused me so much that I decided to fill a whole article with hilariously disastrous attempts to make classical music look cool.

Making classical music look cool

This stuff.

Sounds like fun? Well, too bad. I changed my mind and will now serve you a distressing insight into my sometimes weird musical taste. Do stick around, though.

“You don’t need to be cool to win an audience.”

Good, bad, brilliant

Why did I change my mind? Not because of a lack of material, that’s for sure. For hilarious examples and an intelligent argument about why classical music shouldn’t even try to be cool, read this article.

Anyway, as I was mining the internet for some more ‘good bad’ stuff, I stumbled upon this video.

That guy is Michele “Dr. Viossi” Vioni, Italian guitar virtuoso, composer and producer, playing the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. The video went viral a couple of years ago, but I somehow missed it. And now I can’t stop watching it.

Blended to perfection

I know, I know, … ‘Beethoven meets metal’ sounds like a terribly tasteless idea. Just like ‘Schubert meets metal’. But in this case, I think it actually works. Thanks to Vioni, who not only seems an incredible virtuoso but also an intelligent musician. He strikes a balance between remaining faithful to Beethoven’s score and imposing the typical metal mannerisms upon it. In fact, to me, the backing track is even more interesting than Vioni’s finger acrobatics you see in the video.

Of course, Beethoven deserves some of the credit. Vioni tried this trick on a few other classical compositions, but the result isn’t nearly as good. It’s the amazing drive of that third movement of the Moonlight sonata that blends so well with the metal style.

Acquired metallic taste

Metal is a peculiar musical genre. People who claim to like ‘good’ pop or rock music, usually look down on it. Yet it surprisingly often touches a nerve with jazz or classical enthusiasts. Maybe not that surprising, since metal partly grew out of progressive rock.

Progressive rock meme

Anyway, I recently developed a taste for metal music – at least some of it. This earns me a lot of looks of disbelief. Understandably, since I was once a teenager who preferred Beethoven over Black Sabbath. (Yes, I did get beat up a few times, why do you ask?)

Partners in being uncool

Sure, metal is often needlessly loud and aggressive. But it can be surprisingly adventurous as well, or delightfully silly. Maybe that’s because a lot of metal musicians don’t take themselves too seriously –  despite all the tough posturing. They do whatever they want to do, even if it’s playing a Beethoven piece note by note on an electric guitar. Not cool? As 11 million YouTube views prove: you don’t need to be cool to win an audience.

And isn’t that an uplifting thought for fans of metal and classical alike?