Art Songs

\begin{array}{l l} \text{Parlo d'amor vegliando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I am doing,} \\ \text{Parlo d'amor sognando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I'm pursuing,} \\ \text{All' acqua, all' ombra, ai monti,} & \text{In sunshine or in showers,} \\ \text{Ai fiori, all' erbe, ai fonti, ...} & \text{At home or midst the flowers, ...} \\ \text{All' ecco---all' aria---a venti,} & \text{I sigh---I pant---I languish,} \\ \text{Che il suon de vani accenti, ...} & \text{In bliss that throbs like anguish, ...} \\ \end{array}

Sung by the pubescent, flirtatious Cherubino (he’s played by a soprano), these words are notable for their arresting meter and rhyme, the heavenly beauty of their melody, and, well, their humor. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—recently performed fantastically by the Peabody Opera Theater—presents such an explosive combination of theatricality, musicality, and hilarity as to make Mozart come across as a supernatural genius.

Only later did I learn that Mozart did not work alone [1]. The Felix Krull-esque French man-of-the-world Pierre Beaumarchais originally wrote the French play Le Mariage de Figaro in 1784; only then did Lorenzo Da Ponte, an equally fascinating Italian librettist, translate the play into Italian, excise a tirade against inherited nobility (thus making the play acceptable to the censors), and set certain of its passages to meter and rhyme. These developments, finally, prepared the way for Mozart to set music to the entire work, which premiered in 1786. The libretto’s rhymed passages became the opera’s arias.

This realization, in fact, placed Mozart into a long tradition within classical music. Continue reading

Taking Care to Take Care

The Genius of Drake. 

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In a previous post, I flagged Lil Wayne for his genius, largely because of his witty irreverence. In a world of wanna-be gangsters and braggarts, it somehow occurred to Lil Wayne that he didn’t have to act hard—he could be funny, instead.

Drake’s genius, then, becomes clear as well, for a similar but distinct reason. While his contemporaries extoll their kill counts, sexploits, and paychecks, Drake stands out in a sea of monotony for his ability to express his emotions. Just imagine: it’s 2009; Drake is rising to fame; and suddenly, it’s no longer uncool to feel. The reader will surely join me, then, in deeming Drake’s impact on the rap world revolutionary.

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Romanian Love

“What kind of music do you like?” I could imagine someone asking me.

“Classical, particularly baroque – including the famous oratorios,” I might respond. “Lately I’ve also gotten into the solo repertoire – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3 and the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, for example.

“I also like jazz,” I envision myself adding, with a vague shrug, gradually becoming irritated at the blank face staring in front of me.

“No. Not the music you intellectually enjoy, or that which evokes colors and geometric images, or that which connects you culturally, or that which makes you feel curious and calm. I’m talking pure, unadulterated, dopamine release.”

This person knows how to hit where it hurts.

“Romanian popular music,” I finally utter, in a voice barely above a whisper, turning away in embarrassment. Continue reading

A Modern Rapper’s Hidden Genius

What both fans and critics miss about rap’s most misunderstood man

The reasons for Lil Wayne’s genius are many. His delivery is powerful; his verses seem to come down with the weight of a hammer. His grasp of rhythm is impeccable. He’s versatile; his tone ranges from hyped to stone cold.

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Some of Lil Wayne’s greatest traits, though, are intangible. It’s hard to describe exactly how he does it, but Wayne has an air of not taking himself too seriously. This renders his music not just exhilarating, but also, oddly hilarious. Continue reading

Heaven’s Gates

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

“Mystical states of consciousness”, as described by William James in his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience (1), feature a set of distinctive characteristics: ineffability–they resist adequate depiction in words; noetic quality–they seem to deliver “depths of truth unplumbed” by the standard intellect; transiency–their durations are consistently brief, and passivity–they seem to have been brought on by powers above.

James describes the power of music in facilitating mystical experience. “Music, rather, not conceptual speech, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth… Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict.”

The Moscow Conservatory’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was no exception.

“Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly,” writes James, “and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” James’ disclaimer is prescient. These experiences are difficult to describe. I’ll try anyway, though; let’s begin.

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The main concert hall of the conservatory

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Baroque Style Sampler

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

Baroque music established the early beginnings of classical music in the “modern” sense. Baroque style features mathematically regular rhythms, colorful flourishing melodies, and perfect adherence to the tonalities, shifts, and resolutions of music theory. What is the canonical Baroque style? It might be characterized as music that’s “purely mathematical”. Baroque lacks the grandiose, massive orchestras and dynamical subtleties of the subsequent Classical era (think Mozart); both eras, featuring wide-bodied sound and rhythmic regularity, lack the rhythmic expressiveness and the sliding, artful violin solos typical of the still-later Romantic era.

Each baroque composer, too, introduces unique flavors and elements into his music. I attempt to describe the unique styles of various top baroque composers.

Baroque refers, additionally, to a style of art which shares much with its musical counterpart.

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The Perfection of Bach

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

What is music, and how does it assume beauty and structure? The question is difficult, yet awesome – and its answers appear, to me, above all else in the baroque music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1) (2) (3). Bach’s music attains a virtually geometric perfection, dividing time into cascading blocks which each, within themselves, convey struggles, twists, and resolutions – all in perfect harmony. The result evokes a series of late-Renaissance paintings unfolding in real-time.

Music, then, has structure, and it’s of a unique kind. Notes take on meaning in short sequences; these phrases then, in turn, build more complex and nuanced passages. The product is the creation and development of a theme; this theme is introduced and progressively accumulates additional flavor, conflict, and subtlety. In Baroque tradition, it will always end in resolvement.

I will explore a couple themes intimately related to structure in music.

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