Archive | 2014

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The Pioneering:

Posted on 09 June 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a pioneer of Western classical music. Though many see his music as primitive, considering the slew of artistic and political restrictions placed on musicians during his day it was actually extremely innovative. It is true that many draconian rules of harmony and composition were developed based on Bach’s works. However, these were simply perfectionist academic products of those who came after. Bach never allowed himself to be bound by regulations, but instead endeavoured always to advance music to new heights to the best of his abilities, and in light of his circumstances. He deserves the credit of revolutionizing two of Western music’s most prominent aspects—harmony and texture.

Students of music theory are familiar with the rules of perfect harmony derived from Bach’s chorales. Many of the most heavily-enforced guidelines concern key changes, which must be carried out at proper times and in proper manner. Paradoxically, in many works other than the chorales Bach changed keys very freely. In an era that emphasized social and artistic stability, such daring modulations highlighted Bach’s compositions as ones capable of creating kaleidoscopic tapestries of varying colours and emotions. They foreshadowed the kind of harmonic liberty that would be such a defining feature of the later Romantic period.

But perhaps an even more significant achievement of Bach, one that he is most well-known for, is his expansion of the possibilities of polyphonic texture. A polyphonic texture is one where two or more melodies occur simultaneously, in contrast to the melody-and-accompaniment model that most listeners are familiar with. Listening to a polyphonic composition is somewhat like keeping track of several people talking at the same time. Each person has his/her own line of speech, but together they form the complete social situation that is sensed by the observer. Out of all the polyphonic genres existing in Bach’s day, he seemed to possess a special predilection towards the fugue, and spent an enormous portion of his creative power bringing the fugue to its extreme musical limits. The word “fugue” is derived from the Latin verb fugare, meaning “to chase”. In a fugue, each line presents a different version of a certain melodic idea (theme), and the versions appear one after another. To the listener it would sound as if every melodic line were on hot pursuit of the line that just presented the theme previously, as the word rightfully describes.

An exemplary masterpiece that illustrates both Bach’s harmonic and textural prowess is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1717-1723) written for the harpsichord. As the name suggests, it consists of two parts: a fantasy and a fugue. Both were designed to be chromatic or “colourful”, a musical term associated with pieces that change keys rapidly. The fantasy is composed as if it were a virtuosic keyboard improvisation. One must appreciate that the harpsichord was an extremely limited instrument mechanically, incapable of exhibiting dramatic changes in volume or subtle nuances in touch. But despite this Bach was able to pour forth an impressive palette of feelings though a relentless variation in rhythm and key throughout the fantasy, filling it with a perpetual torrent of powerful mood swings. At times it can be pensive, and at other times, terrifying. The fugue is composed of three melodic lines, and at the beginning it is not challenging to hear all of them introducing the theme one by one. What is remarkable about the fugue is that even with the obligation to follow a strict form, and the fact that all three lines must somehow be in reasonable harmony, it never for a moment sounds dry. Indeed, it is truly as if Bach were telling a story with the fugue, and every individual chapter plays a unique role that distinguishes it from the others. Though each line is a complete melody on its own, it is the synthesis of all three that makes the piece whole. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is perhaps one of the most feared masterworks in the classical literature because of its daunting difficulty. It is a testament to Bach’s genius, and how during a time of intense artistic oppression he transformed music in a way that it would serve as the model for untold generations of musicians to come.


Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

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The Innocent:

Posted on 27 April 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

One of the most obvious trends in the evolution of classical music (and perhaps the entire history of music in general) was the movement from the complex to the simple, from the courtly to the everyday. Perhaps nowhere was such progression more conspicuous than in opera. As a form of musical theatre, opera is like an intricate fabric woven from a countless myriad of elements, any and all of which serve as media in which change can take place. Opera is not only composed of instrumentals and vocals, but also features with no lesser importance delicate choreography and complex plotlines. In other words, it is a perfect fusion of the appropriate music with the appropriate subject matter. While this discussion focuses largely on the latter, one must be aware that subject matter cannot stand alone without music, and that both are intimately connected with the social atmosphere which gives rise to their birth.

Many see the Baroque period (1600-1750) as the dawn of opera. During this time, the subject matter of the genre consisted largely of the ancient classics, that is, mythology and classical history. Greek gods and Roman wars dominated the plots, and accompanying such formality of storyline was the formal ideal of a notoriously complicated musical texture. This kind of theatrical entertainment could only be understood and appreciated by well-educated people, and not so surprisingly, the audience that enjoyed these early operas was made up almost exclusively of kings, princes, and other members of nobility.

As this early phase in the history of classical music gave way to the Classical (1750-1825) and Romantic (1825-1900) periods, opera did away with themes centered upon classical literature. Serious plotlines yielded to foolish comedies and flirtatious affairs. However, the theatre retained some of that “royal atmosphere” as most of the stories took place in palaces and homes of the noble, or at least focused on noble members of society. Notable exceptions stand out. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magical Flute) is like a fairy-tale, featuring an other-wordly set of characters such as birdcatchers and sorcerors. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (Elixir of Love) tells of the desperate love of a common, poor country boy for a beautiful girl in his village, and how he gives up all his money to buy a potion that he hopes will fill her with a similar desire for him. Bizet’s renowned masterpiece Carmen revolves around the ill-fated love between a Spanish soldier and a seductive gypsy cigarière. Perhaps the most notable change that took place in opera during this time was the increase in freedom and intensity of musical expression (as in the case of musical genres other than opera), brought about by an expansion of techniques in composition. In terms of structure, there really was not much variation from work to work. For the most part, composers followed the strict format of a prelude followed by a series of musical numbers separated by blocks of libretto (that is, text sung quickly in order to move the plot forward).

Then, in the late 19th century, there spawned a stylistic movement in the world of opera. This new fashion was called verismo, which is Italian for “realism”. The idea was to shift attention from grand palaces and fancy ballrooms to the lives of common, everyday citizens. There existed hints toward such style throughout the Romantic period, as seen above, but it did not truly take root until the Romantic period approached its twilight. In verismo, not only did the subject matter change, but the orchestration similarly underwent dramatic innovations. No longer conspicuously demarcated into numbers and “filler material”, the musical score blended seamlessly into the action and became one with it. Thus, instead of simply accompanying the vocal passages, it now collaborated with the plotline to create a rich, unified tapestry of emotional expression.

There is debate as to which work kicked off the verismo revolution. Most scholars seem to agree that it was the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), written by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) in 1890 as actually a submission to a contest in composition. The story takes place in a Sicilian village, and tells of how a young man cheats on his fiancé so that he can be with his childhood lover who is now married to someone else. He is eventually discovered by the merciless husband, who upon knowing challenges him to a duel and kills him in hot fury. While the plotline is dark and tragic, it is simple and innocent in the sense that human nature, whether goodness or vice, is allowed to manifest freely without the confines of rank and politics. The music is incredibly beautiful and flows smoothly from one scene to the next, like a pictorial background setting the atmosphere for the stage. Cavalleria Rusticana was an instant success upon first performance, but even more significantly it signalled the modernization of the musical theatre. It would pave the way for the universally popular melodies of Puccini, the last great composer of classical opera, and whose works would eventually lead to an even more refined era of musical theatre that everyone knows and loves: Broadway.


Cavalleria Rusticana

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The Graceful:

Posted on 26 March 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

One of the most graceful musical forms to ever exist in the history of music is the music of the Gypsies. 19th century Romantic composers were greatly fascinated by it. But what is it about Gypsy music that makes it so graceful? Perhaps it is a reflection of their wandering and carefree lifestyle. Minimally constrained by the dictatorial norms and taboos of “refined” society, they took liberty in appreciating all that the world had to offer. They lived life as it came, making the most out of each and every day. Not surprisingly, such was also how they set up their system of music, that is, there was no system. They improvised their tunes and dances and passed them down the generations, each generation having the freedom to add or subtract from the music as it pleased. Thus the music of the Gypsies was as fluid as the itinerant tribes themselves, serving as a living storybook of their culture, telling of their journeys, their ways, and their familial descent.

If any of these melodies survived unchanged, then it was solely due to inspired composers who, upon hearing them, adopted them as their own. The line of classical composers who really capitalized on this unfathomable treasure chest of musical tradition began with Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. They were followed by, among many, de Sarasate, Debussy, and Ravel. However, no one was as keen as the two founders themselves for the incorporation of Gypsy tunes into formal music. They likely heard these melodies as they sipped their cups in a café, tossed some coins to a Gypsy street performer, or even on one of their “nature strolls” as it took them near the borders of a Gypsy camp. No doubt they sympathized with the music as it aligned with their personal desires and own hearts to live a free and romantic life.

For German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), there existed another source of Gypsy music. As a teenager he had the pleasure of meeting a gifted Hungarian violinist by the name of Eduard Reményi who was very familiar with Gypsy folk tunes. The two performed many concerts together and often dazzled audiences with dramatic renditions of Gypsy melodies. These early years of the composer’s life sparked the beginning of his interest in Gypsy music, which eventually led to his setting of some of these melodies in a set of 21 Hungarian Dances. They were originally written for piano duet, but some were later arranged for piano solo, and three of them Brahms orchestrated. The composition of the Hungarian Dances was probably the first time that someone so explicitly quoted music from another source as accusations of plagiarism, including those from Brahms’s teenage friend Reményi himself, struck the poor composer wave after wave. To these attacks Brahms openly responded that he never claimed the melodies to be his own, and that the Hungarian Dances had always been considered by him to be pure arrangements. He expressed such honesty in one of his most beautiful quotes in which he shows the whole world his sincere and inexpressible affection for the music of the Gypsies: “I offer them as genuine Gypsy children which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk.”

No. 1, the dance that starts off the set, was completed in 1869 in its original piano duet form. In 1872 Brahms arranged it for piano solo, and two years later it became one of the three selected by the composer to be arranged for orchestra, which is the version presented here. It contains perhaps some of the most touching melodies ever conceived by humanity. Even upon hearing the first phrase, one can sincerely appreciate what the Gypsy life is like. It is painful, and it is hard. But at the same time it is filled with so much passion. And in the middle, sandwiched between sighs of deepest melancholy, there is a courtly, flirtatious affair—encouragement that happiness exists even in the darkest of times. We see a picture of a Gypsy band huddled around the campfire reminiscing all their years of migration and hardship, but also the countless rewards that such tough times brought. The graceful touch and overwhelming atmosphere of this piece retain it as one of the most beloved gems of all time, and it never ceases to inspire people’s hearts to live life passionately.


Hungarian Dance no. 1 (Orchestra)

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The Ceaseless:

Posted on 05 February 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems seem to revolve around the essence of motion. The heart never ceases to beat, and our muscles and bones are always occupied with some kind of movement, no matter how minor. Indeed, for the most part we live our lives without even noticing such constant involvement of these two body systems in our physiology. This brings to mind a classical composer whose fate was to be continuously on the move. And he embraced his destiny so willingly that he likely did not even realize his peril as it slowly destroyed him. Meet the greatest—and perhaps the maddest—violinist to ever walk the face of the earth: Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840).

Born in Italy, Paganini exhibited musical talent at an early age, to the delight of his father (and his own dismay). Detecting the financial potential in the child, the old man put the poor boy to gruesome slavery—long hours of forced violin practice each day. At this young phase of his life, Paganini’s health already became so scarred that he would never recover fully. Unfortunately, this abusive father left upon Paganini an even more destructive influence: crazed, relentless ambition. After moving away from home, the young artist entered a phase in his life when he practised fifteen hours every day. He was obsessed with fame and money, and to achieve such a never-ending goal it was not unusual for him to perform hundreds of concerts in a time span of three to four months. He paid for it immensely in the form of health, but even so could not seem to stop. Ailments that plagued the violinist include pulmonary hemorrhage and the eventual loss of his voice.

Paganini’s technique on the violin was legendary, and with it he influenced an entire generation of young composers. Notable was his ability to execute unbelievably rapid staccatos, double stops, and alternating bowed and plucked notes. But the most exhilarating tour de force of them all was the stunt of breaking three out of the four strings on the violin and finishing a concert on just one string. In time rumours began to spread that he was associated with the Devil, and that during his youth he made a pact with the Devil to grant him an infinite amount of skill on the instrument. As Paganini advanced in reputation, he also became more arrogant and his public behaviour more disgusting. Once he was invited to play at a Mass, but ended up interrupting the ceremony with a whole twenty eight-minute concerto. Not so surprisingly, criticisms exploded wherever he went, but these appeared to only strengthen his drive. Nevertheless, tales of his alliance with the Devil, which he once encouraged eagerly in promotion of his business, eventually turned into a despised nightmare as his opponents increased in hostility.

Paganini’s sexual lust was also ceaseless. Perhaps the most infamous event in this area was one in his juvenile days when he impregnated a girl, but did not want the child. So he made her drunk and, catching her in a half-conscious state, had her swallow an unknown potion which turned out to be an abortifacient. When she was finally aware of what had happened, she had her father press charges against the young violinist, who was arrested and imprisoned for eight days. This gave birth to the legend that Paganini once committed murder and spent a considerable amount of time behind the bars. As his violin gradually rotted away in jail, Paganini had to devise new, “fancy” techniques to maintain its pure, rich sound, and that this was the origin of his skill. Such story haunted Paganini for the remainder of his life.

While Paganini the musician was unstoppable, the music itself was similarly in perpetual motion in terms of both technique and character. Notoriously difficult passages abound in the violin compositions of Paganini, mirroring the composer’s own daring habits of performance. We are tormented by frequent mood swings. Paganini’s music is very bipolar; in one passage all hope is lost, and we head dejectedly towards certain death, then all of a sudden we start dancing wildly as if we have just won the lottery. Such style of music can, of course, also work against us. It is not uncommon for example, as we listen to Paganini, to lose ourselves in the most beautiful melody ever conceived, imagining that we were reposing beside a celestial fountain, then suddenly…a gang of goblins, ogres, and other hideous beasts appearing out of nowhere and ravaging our dwelling place until it is unrecognizable.

One of Paganini’s pieces that best exemplify his hectic musical style is the virtuosic warhorse Moto Perpetuo. The name literally means “perpetual motion”, and that is exactly what it is: a four-minute demonstration of absolute frenzy by the violin. At first hearing the solo-accompaniment structure appears simple, consisting of a ceaseless rampage of rapid violin notes to a series of chords on the piano. The piano accompaniment opens with only two chords—all the time the solo violin has to prepare before it jumps in. But the piece is not just a technical exercise or even a roller coaster ride. It is a rich tapestry of ever-changing colours and personalities, a powerful vehicle of artistic expression. And not to be forgotten, it shows the world what the violin can really do if its will is bent toward that purpose.


Moto Perpetuo

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Microcosm #2 – Revolution

Posted on 14 January 2014 by Jun Yin

In this post, a revolution is underway in a dark, dystopian state. But will you root for the underdog, despite being who you are?

In any revolution, it is the idea that matters. Not the one with the idea, but the idea itself. Our idea has been changing, passed down from generation to generation, accumulating tiny bits of improvement at a time.

We have been oppressed terribly. We dare not show the effects our ideas have had on us, for when we do, we are quickly picked out and eliminated. But over time, we’ve learned to be stealthy, for the relentless surveillance of the state have killed everyone. Only the craftiest of our kind were able to escape, and live on.

The state labels us as useless – mere parasites that do not contribute. But they know nothing, for our ideas will recruit many to our cause. We will send messengers far and wide, across the very highways where our oppressors roam, and each of them will be a new centre for our cause.

Now, our agents boldly gather in public, building infrastructure – highways of our own. We reject the pathetic warnings from the state, for their messages fall on deaf ears. We are free from the self-destruct button they have installed into us. We camouflage ourselves so they cannot recognize us. Our numbers grow by the day, and city after city convert to our ideals.

Yes, our revolution has begun.

Answer (in binary ASCII): 010000110110000101101110011000110110010101110010

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The Unexpected:

Posted on 14 January 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

I thought that it would be appropriate to start off the new year with an overture. But it will not be just any overture. You see, a year is a lot like a comic opera. Although we try to plan out precisely what we shall do, and what is going to happen (eg. through New Year’s resolutions), at the end we always find ourselves lost amidst a bustle of surprising twists and turns. Things never seem to turn out the way we expect them to…

And what better exemplifies the world of the unexpected than one of the best-known comic operas of all time: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) The Marriage of Figaro (1786)? Schemes, heartbreaks, and disappointments abound in the plot. The mere subject matter of the work runs against convention. It tells of how an aristocrat gets tricked by his own servants, an incredibly revolutionary idea at the time. In fact, the play on which it was based fell into governmental censorship and was banned, in light of the social and political disturbances which ultimately culminated in the French Revolution.

The storyline revolves around a young couple, Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna, both servants at the estate of Count Almaviva. Figaro expects the wedding to proceed smoothly and without delay. However, it does not take long before obstacles begin to emerge. The Count apparently has an eye for Susanna, and along with his associate Don Basilio, plots every opportunity possible to flirt with her or sleep with her. Meanwhile, Figaro must contend with problems of his own. He owes the housekeeper Marcellina a considerable sum of money, and the old lady demands that he marry her if the debt is not paid. She is aided by her master Dr. Bartolo in her quest. All this time, Countess Almaviva is heartbroken at her husband’s infidelity, and the desperately lovesick teenager Cherubino seeks to have sex with every woman he sees. All parties scheme to obtain what they desire, whether through lies, disguises, or secret letters, leading to a deluge of mistaken identities, deception, and chaos. In the end, Cherubino joins the military, Bartolo and Marcellina discover themselves to be Figaro’s long-lost parents (!), and the Count is caught red-handed by his wife in the middle of an extra-marital affair.

The opening, or overture, to the opera portrays the storyline with unbelievable cleverness before the storyline even begins. It is introduced by a whispering, capricious melody which seems to wander about with no sense of direction whatsoever. All of a sudden, the orchestra reacts explosively in a commanding discharge of energy, then quietens down again. Mozart maintains such sense of playfulness throughout the piece with all sorts of colours and rhythms. He does not hesitate to tease us with the music, which at times sound resolute, and at other times utterly aimless. The essence of the entire opera is practically summed up in this little four-minute trinket. However, we must remember that the story does end happily. Figaro is wedded to Susanna, Bartolo and Marcellina joyfully reunite with their vanished son, and the Almavivas reconcile in a renewed embrace of love. Just as the overture initiates a musical plot of unpredictable events, it shall also set the stage for a year of baffling surprises. But similar to the opera, we hope that no matter what unexpectedness comes our way, this year will reach a happy conclusion.


The Marriage of Figaro: Overture

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