Classical Music   Leave a comment

I grew up with the piano. My mom had the upright piano she grew up with at her old house transported to our humble home when I was about 4 years old. She had it tuned, painted and fixed. As a kid, anyone who played the piano was a mark of prestige to me. I was in awe and listened quietly with my sister whenever my mom played. She plays classical tunes and modern songs that I heard in the radio at the time. She also plays by ear.

As an adult, I still think piano playing is a mark of prestige, whether you were classically trained or self-taught. I learned that “classical music” is the blanket term attributed to all songs before the 20th century. We had medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romanticism, and then 20th and 21st century style music. This is only western music. It does not include music from other regions of the world and their vast histories.

I learned to play the piano by ear as a kid. In high school, I learned how to read sheet music and just went from there. I’m not classically trained. I guess you could say I have the best of both worlds. I played the most in high school. Other interests, college, my job… I don’t play as much anymore. I still play piano and guitar when I’m inspired.

It makes me think about what people did for entertainment in the past. They had sports. They went to the beach. They hung out with friends. Only when the sun is up. At night, they went home. Without electricity, lamps were a hot commodity. Plays and concerts were a luxury that only the upper-class could afford. I imagine the demand and competition lowered the prices, allowing everyone from all walks of life to experience concertos, orchestras and operas.

When it came to classical music, the audience had to use their imagination. The pamphlets had short summaries on the scene for part of the music. The music sets the scene, evoking emotions, engrossing the audience.

But seriously, I just needed an excuse to post this Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of Animals. The Aquarium, Dying Swan, and the Finale are my favorite.

I. Introduction et marche royale du lion (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion) [0:00]
II. Poules et coqs (Hens and Roosters) [1:58]
III. Hémiones – animaux véloces (Wild Asses – quick animals) [2:42]
IV. Tortues (Tortoises) [3:22]
V. L’éléphant (The Elephant) [5:24]
VI. Kangourous (Kangaroos) [6:55]
VII. Aquarium [7:51]
VIII. Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears) [9:58]
IX. Le coucou au fond des bois (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods) [10:35]
X. Volière (Aviary) [12:40]
XI. Pianistes (Pianists) [13:52]
XII. Fossiles (Fossils) [15:15]
XIII. Le cygne (The Swan) [16:41]
XIV. Finale [19:40]

This is a famous musical suite by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), written while on vacation in Austria in 1886. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of flute/piccolo, clarinet (B flat and C), two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass – in this recording, a full orchestral string section is used, and instead of the glass harmonica, there is a glockenspiel. Saint-Saëns believed that the work was too frivolous to publish during his lifetime, and for this reason, he only gave private performances to his close friends. He left a provision for it to be published posthumously, so the Carnival of the Animals only received a formal premiere one year after the composer’s death.

Each of the fourteen movements depicts a different animal, often with plenty of humour and wit.

The first is the majestic march of the king of the animals – the lion – played by strings and pianos. The low, rumbling octave figure passed between the pianos is, of course, the lion’s mighty roar.

The second movement (for pianos, clarinet, violins and violas) sees hens and roosters squawking while pecking at grains on the ground. The distinctive theme played by the piano is the rooster’s “cock a doodle doo” call.

Next, Tibetan wild asses – portrayed by the two pianos in unison – gallop frenetically through the scene.

In contrast, the next movement for strings and piano depicts the slow, laborious movement of tortoises. This satirical section takes its main theme from the famous Galop infernal (or the can-can) in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” – but it is played exceedingly slowly.

Then, the double bass and piano play a pompous, heavy-handed dance for the elephant. The thematic material derives from the scherzo in Mendelssohn’s incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the ballet of the sylphs in Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust”.

The brief sixth movement sees two pianos play an abrupt, bouncy figure depicting hopping kangaroos.

Next, we find ourselves inside the shimmering water of an aquarium full of graceful fish. This movement is played by strings, pianos, flute, and glockenspiel. The pianos play a high rolling ostinato – one in decuplets and the other in sextuplets.

There follows a short movement for violins that sound like braying donkeys; perhaps Saint-Saëns meant the donkeys to represent asinine music critics.

Next, the pianos and an offstage clarinet play a slow movement where a cuckoo’s call breaks the quiet of the woods.

The tenth movement for flute, piano and strings depicts an aviary abuzz with quiet activity, over which a tropical bird (the flute) sings a melody full of trills and scales.

Then, we see a very different type of animal – pianists (who, after all, are primates). The two pianists awkwardly practice scale patterns similar to those found in Hanon exercises. The whole time, they stumble over notes and break unison – evidently they need more practice.

Three loud unresolved chords lead into the next movement for strings, pianos, clarinet and xylophone, depicting fossils. The hollow sound of the xylophone evokes bones clacking together. The melody is from Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre”, the dance of skeletons. Other musical allusions in this movement include “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (a.k.a. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), “Partant pour la Syrie”, the nursery rhymes “Au clair de la lune” and “J’ai du bon tabac”, and a snippet from the aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. The series of allusions is itself a musical joke, since these old tunes are cultural fossils.

The penultimate movement played by the cello and pianos shows the graceful gliding of a swan over a rippling lake. This very well-known section has become a stand-alone staple of the cello repertoire as well as the brief Fokine ballet “The Dying Swan”.

Last comes the finale for the full ensemble, where themes from previous movements are reprised and combined to close the suite with excitement and panache.

Pianists: Vivian Troon, Roderick Elms
Conductor: Andrea Licata
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

I’m done.

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Posted March 13, 2016 by StupidSystemus in Music, Musings, Video

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