Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Muppet of the Night

I don't know that I need to offer too many words to present this bit of silliness, but I do like tracing a journey that ends so unexpectedly. Indeed, a few days ago I had no reason to imagine any of this would happen.

Our story begins this past summer when 1) I twice heard a legendary piece of music performed and I became somewhat obsessed with it. I won't reveal the piece in question now, but I will say that 2) I've devised a situation in which my violinist daughter will be performing this music. It has some tricky, high-flying passages, and she was playfully complaining about one by 3) singing it in a high, silly voice that sounded like Elmo from Sesame Street. 4) I mentioned this in an online chat with some friends and expressed my regret that I had not recorded the Elmo-style violin singing. 5) One of the friends, knowing me all too well, then suggested that I could probably generate my own Elmo-style singing.

6) Of course, this set off all sorts of ideas in my brain, and soon I was sampling the world of sampling (fairly new to me) and had created a little set-up which "sings" MIDI notation a la Elmo. 7) When I played this for my daughter, she suggested Elmo should sing the "Queen of the Night" aria, and that just about brings us up to date because 8) of course I couldn't resist that challenge. 9) Once the audio was generated, I also started thinking about creating an animation to go along with it. 10) Using some techniques I'd developed with this Barber Violin Concerto project, I found a way to convert the MIDI data (basically, information about pitches and durations) to be used as variables to control a crudely animated Singing Elmo.

And that's pretty much it, but I'll just add a few quick comments. I actually think Mozart's original is rather ridiculous and he might be amused that we take it so seriously. It is effective within the also ridiculous story it inhabits, but I don't think it's so far from the spirit of this music to present it this way. That alone is hardly reason enough to have done this, but the project enabled me to "play" both with the concept of sampling audio to make a virtual instrument and to use math and coding to marry animation to music notation. As with many of my projects, I'm presenting this more or less at the "proof of concept" phase as all elements could be significantly improved if I were willing to put in exponentially more work. But I think this does the job.


NOTE: Better synced version uploaded on 11/17.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Some Little Knights Music

One never knows when and how a musical work might cross one's path.

  • A few years ago, some back and forth with friends about music in quintuple meter led me to a virtual obsession with a little fugue by the little-known Anton Reicha.
  • Last year, encounters with an unusual hymn from the 1970s by another little-known composer turned into a series of experiments in creating virtual performances of a hazy hymn tune.
  • Eleven years ago, I walked into a hall to hear a young chamber orchestra rehearsing and fell in love with four minutes of a string symphony by a 12-year-old Mendelssohn, leading to this extended analysis.
  • More than twenty years ago, a snowstorm cancelled a rehearsal which led me to create some synthesized practice materials which I later converted into thirty minutes of slo-mo Schoenberg.
You never know.

Now if, out of the blue, you'd told me the Italian/American composer Gian Carlo Menotti had written a dramatic cantata about a bishop lamenting the loss of children in an ill-fated crusade...I'm pretty sure I'd have had no interest in the matter. I know and have played some of Menotti's better-known opera arias (this is an all-timer), and I have no objection to his music, but I'm not a big fan of dramatic cantatas or obscure historical fables...and I just would have had little incentive to invest in getting to know this mostly forgotten music.

However, it turns out that the major recording of this work, The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, was made by my hometown Boston Symphony Orchestra featuring a children's choir from Catholic Memorial, the boys prep school where I've been teaching the past five years. I just learned of this 1965 LP a few weeks ago and am still sorting out some of its history. The most extraordinary part is that my school was only founded in 1957. Within a year of that founding, an organist named Berj Zamkochian had started a glee club which somehow provided half of the children's voices for this major recording less than a decade later. (The other children's choir members came from another school where Zamkochian taught. I'm wondering if that school was co-ed, because Catholic Memorial was a 9-12 school, which makes me wonder how many treble voices they would have had.)

Zamkochian is a rather remarkable figure who served as the BSO's organist from 1957-2004, making highly regarded recordings of the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony and the Poulenc Organ Concerto with Charles Munch. Obviously, he had an "in" at Symphony Hall, but it's still impressive that he was able to have students trained at this level in so little time. 

The chorus of townspeople on this LP is sung by The New England Conservatory Chorus, led by the legendary Lorna Cooke deVaron. I had the honor of working as an accompanist with deVaron during her retirement years when she was still very active leading a few ambitious community choirs. So this recording features a chorus from my alma mater, conducted by someone I knew and worked under, and featuring a children's choir from the school where I now teach. Reason enough to give Menotti's cantata a second look!

And as it turns out, I've now listened to the thirty-minute cantata at least ten times and have gotten to know it pretty well. While it's definitely odd and has some features I don't love, I find it strangely compelling, and I especially enjoy the way the children's choir is used. Maybe this isn't so surprising since Menotti is best-known for an opera about a child. Although the central character is clearly The Bishop, I find him a bit tiresome for reasons I'll discuss, but the children's choir serves as the heart of the show. 

The cantata concerns a legendary "Children's Crusade" from the year 1212, based on true (at least in part) stories of young people inspired by a child's vision to go reclaim the Holy Land peacefully. Menotti's cantata is focused on a dying bishop who is haunted by his memories of having blessed this doomed crusade. The cantata plays out like some combination of a deathbed confession and waking fever dream with "The Bishop" questioning his leadership and the very foundations of his faith as he relives his fateful choices. The only other character in the present is "The Nun" who tries in vain to bring him back to reality and to offer consolation. As the drama unfolds, we experience in flashback the first hopeful and later terrified voices of children and the mobbed voices of townspeople who, transfixed by the children's visions, beg the bishop to bless the journey and then later curse him for the outcome. (You can read much more detail about the historical background here in a write-up by bass-baritone Bruce Burroughs who has sung the part of the bishop.)

The cantata proceeds as an uninterrupted flow of music, about thirty minutes with no separate arias or movements. The music for The Bishop and The Nun is in a declamatory, parlando style almost throughout, with orchestra supplying psychological backup. The two choruses generally sing more obviously tuneful material, bringing the bishop's memories to life.

Here is a basic outline of the overall structure:

  • INTRODUCTION (1 minute): A one-minute orchestral introduction features a dark, foreboding tune we'll later hear as the first tune sung by the children setting off on their journey. The modal melody is first played by low woodwinds and horns in a manner which suggests the distant past. It is then played again by more passionate strings which adds a more expansive and emotional tone to set up the bishop's entrance. 
  • BISHOP & NUN (5.5 minutes): The bishop begins singing about how the onset of night makes it impossible to shield his "unraveled mind" as "mem'ries unlock their secret dungeons." As he hears voices and asks for the doors to be locked, the nun tries to assure him no one is there and that he only hears the sea. Their dialogue leads to him recounting the moment he first encountered the children on the shore.
  • START OF MISSION (10 minutes): In succession, we hear the children announce their mission, the townspeople marveling at them, the bishop begging to be freed from these memories, the nun assuring him he tried to stop the children, the townspeople begging for his blessing, and the bishop again wondering why he gave in. (Notably, we don't experience the blessing itself, just his regret.)
  • DEPARTURE & STORM (4 minutes): At precisely halfway through the cantata, the beatific children's chorus sets out, singing "I shall kiss our Lord's tomb, I shall free the Holy Land." Immediately, the bishop describes a storm, and we soon hear the children crying for help and subsequently drowning, with the bishop (in the present) despairing that he can't help.
  • BISHOP & TOWNSPEOPLE (4 minutes): The bishop twice sings more or less the same music of regret, framing an outburst from the townspeople in which they curse him.
  • BISHOP & NUN (3.5 minutes): The nun continues to console the bishop, first asking him to "fret not" and then singing a short requiem for him as he continues his anguished questioning.
  • ALL (3 minutes): The assembled voices sing words of comfort and assurance that these existential questions are not in vain. Chilling death knells in the orchestra bring the curtain down.
Importantly from a dramatic perspective, the bishop always remains in the present, experiencing the memories at times as if the children and townspeople are in the present as well. Though he is alternately desperate and philosophical, we never experience him in a settled state. The nun's role as consoling voice is virtually unchanged throughout. The children are presented (presumably according to the bishop's perspective) as innocent and idealistic throughout. They do cry out to him and their parents during the storm, but then sing a dignified Jesu Deus noster, miserere nobis as they disappear into the sea. The townspeople represent human fallibility and mob mentality, singing with great passion and purpose throughout but without wisdom or self-reflection. 

First performed in 1963, it's hard not to hear in this music some connection to the events unfolding in Vietnam; the cantata mostly focuses on the doubts felt by a leader sending young people off to risk their lives under questionable circumstances. Just read this series of words from the bishop (from various sections of the cantata), who questions himself, the prospect of leading the innocent, his faith, and God:
  • “Beware, beware of pleading children, for where are we to guide them if not within the maze where our own perdition lies.”
  • “And was it not my love which led them to their doom?”
  • “I fear the voice of innocence, for he who loves the helpless must mistrust his love.”
  • “O God, you gave me a ring, you gave me a staff and called me shepherd. If I must guide your flock, why did you leave me unguided?”
  • “I do not mind leading a man who knows that I know not, but can I tell the innocent: "Do not seek my hand for I, too, am lost"?”
  • “Do not call for help, my children. Love has no wings and faith is fallible.”
  • “Was it God's will or my own folly? Who was I to know if it was God or Satan who blinded them with secret splendor?”
  • “But then our soul is deeper than we are, and who can trace and kill the Minotaur who haunts the labyrinth of our hearts?”
  • “What love, what faith can justify the man who makes himself the arbiter of other people's lives?”
  • “What man can call himself a leader if God will mock his strategy?"
  • “Many are the innocents who call for help, but God has made Pilates of us all.”
These words are clear and powerful in their expressions of a crumbling faith. That said, probably my biggest objection to the cantata from a musical/dramatic perspective is that it is so focused on the bishop's unrelenting grief and regret. We don't see or hear him experience much range of emotions or change in character. His music, though consistently anguished, has a certain sameness and, because it so declamatory in style, there aren't many satisfying or memorable melodic hooks. I realize that Menotti's dramatic focus is on this haunted deathbed moment, and that the variety is provided by the other voices, but it makes for a strange leading role. There's no big aria or particularly striking moment that stands out. The one "bishop motif" that sticks with me is a wailing, ascending half-step in the orchestra which occurs at multiple intervals as shown in this quick demo:


Another issue with the words above has to do with Menotti the librettist. Often the language he uses doesn't flow in the most singable way (notice how many of the lines look more like poetry or even prose than lyrics) and I can't imagine an audience following all of these phrases easily without a printed libretto. At one point the Townspeople cry out, "While the Cathar sews his heresy in Languedoc, the Tartar hordes advance in pagan splendor." I'd love to know what listener could follow that easily on the fly. Earlier on, The Nun sings, "Now that your death is near, rescue you must the heart from the wreckage of your past, and steer your floundering soul toward the emerging haven." 

Speaking of The Nun, her role is the most disappointing for me as it simply doesn't offer much in the way of vocal rewards for the singer or standout moments for the audience. The idea of her singing a requiem alongside the bishop's words towards the end is lovely, but she only gets to sing six words (Requiem aeternam. Dona eis Domine. Amen.) on one mid-register pitch! She has one semi-vivid moment with "Do not fret, my brother..." starting around 24:38 (see video at end of post), culminating with a high G and leading into the little requiem, but she is basically a one-note character.

Against all of that, though, the innocent children grab our attention every time they appear (I suppose on some level, this might be Menotti's point - the dead are the ones we hear as alive.). Here you can hear that opening of the cantata with their melody-to-be in the low winds followed by a skip to their first entrance:


A small notable feature of this modal melody is how the second half of the first bar outlines a minor subdominant (iv) triad which gives the music an old-fashioned plagal feeling with its implied i-iv-i. 

The children's music, in general, provides a simplicity and directness which helps bring the story to life, even if the cantata isn't really so much about storytelling. The townspeople also offer vivid interjections, though I've already mentioned that their language comes across as too literary in places. For example: "The coward Christian knight waiting his chance to plunder his unwary neighbor hides in his towers." The Townspeople do feature in perhaps the most stirring music with their Cecil B. Demille climax on the words: "What burning vision in their sunken eyes gave them such lasting strength?" [occurs at 11:30 in the full recording at end of this post.]


The most dramatic music in the work occurs with the wildly orchestrated storm which begins just past the half-way point at 17:02. This music is effective, probably even more so in a concert hall, but a bit generic, and each lead-in to the children singing is odd in a way I'll let you evaluate for yourself. (It almost seems like Menotti wanted to be sure the children don't miss these entrances.) The drowning of the voices is the musical highlight here. Listen starting at 19:45 to how these words are reflected in all that's going on around them in the orchestra:
In a windy, wat'ry abyss we are flung.
I can no longer hear my own voice. Ah-Ah...
Can you hear me, mother?
Jesu Deus noster, miserere nobis. Ah-Ah...

According to this article, Menotti loved the final "Sleep, sleep in peace" chorus (sung by all, including the children) so much that he "asked to have it sung at his own funeral." (I don't know if he got his wish.) The Bishop has ended his time with us despairing that he can find no rest:

For all that I have suffered, for all that I have sought,
let me, if for an instant only, behold the eternal truth.
Give me the answer!
No forgiveness can wash my guilt away
for without knowledge absolute there can be no paradise for me.
No gates of Heaven shall I enter unless it be revealed to me why,
why I, who loved so purely, was cursed with such destructive love.
That final chorus includes this somewhat enigmatic (and again, more literary than lyrical) answer, and perhaps Menotti found that enigma satisfying. It certainly provides us with an ending, while also leaving us with much to question:
Nothing is purposeless, nothing.
Then why should God have given you in life a questioning mind
if not to hand to you in death the blinding answer?

You might be questioning why I've spent so much time thinking and writing about a work which isn't entirely satisfying, but I suppose it confirms that I do find the music gripping and powerful. It strikes me very much as a product of its mid-century, middlebrow time when there was a cultural hunger for art which combines general accessibility (it is tonal and sounds like movie music at times) with intellectual ambition (it is philosophical and poetic). Speaking of Menotti's musical approach, the 1964 New York Times review of a performance by the same forces at Philharmonic Hall was perhaps too harsh, a sign of The Times when inaccessible modernity was all the rage:

The score is typical Menotti — craftsmanlike, well orchestrated, highly conservative, and undistinguished in its musical ideas. Basically it is good background music. There is storm music, and religious music, and in general the music illustrates the text. The melodic content, though, is far from striking. What this bland, slick score lacks is nourishment.

Obviously I agree about the melodic content, but I don't find the score bland, and I do think it gives the listener an opportunity to experience both the fervor of the children and townspeople and the regret which they led to for the bishop. And all in thirty minutes.

So, I'll leave you with the recommendation that you find thirty minutes to listen to this unusual work. I've created two versions of the complete RCA recording, which is also available as individual tracks in a playlist here. Both of my versions include easy-to-access chapter links which allow you to move about within the score. The first one I made simply includes the text in easy-to-read size, and in a way that makes it possible to ponder the more serpentine phrases. The second version includes the full score, which is admittedly hard to read in detail, but which shows more the orchestral shape of things; the libretto is also repeated in running captions at the bottom. This video is directly embedded below as well. And if you'd like to study Menotti's libretto on its own, you may find that here.




For further reading/exploration:
  • The 1964 BSO program booklet. These programs are super fun to read with all their historic ads. This booklet also heralds the debut concert of what is now the legendary Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Program notes for Menotti begin on p.28 of this PDF (numbered as p.222 in the booklet pages).
  • Bruce Burroughs' reflections on performing the part of The Bishop, with more historical detail about the Children's Crusades. 
  • There are also at least three live performances available on YouTube via this playlist

P.S. The title of this post is a play not only on the young Crusaders of the story, but the fact that our Catholic Memorial students are known on the field as Knights. Thus, it's especially fun to hear the townspeople sing the following about these 60's C.M. students: "Behold the singing children, God's own little knights." And the children themselves later sing: "Do not cry, dear mother, for your little knight."

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

OFF the BEATen path

I was recently researching various musical settings of William Blake's poem The Lamb. One of my favorites is by the great American song composer Lee Hoiby, and I came across this recording of Hoiby himself accompanying the song.



It's a fine recording of a song which is successful in part because of its simplicity and directness, but there's something un-simple right at the start. Having accompanied and coached this song many times, I know well that Hoiby has laid a subtle trap for the singer (and pianist) in the one-bar piano introduction. As you can see below in bar 2, the left hand is syncopated one sixteenth note off from the right hand melody and vocal line, but Hoiby chose to begin the song with that left hand figure syncopated against...well, against nothing. Or, more specifically, against some unheard downbeat felt by the pianist and perhaps by the singer - but inaudible. So, if the notation is followed precisely, it will likely sound like the singer comes in early. We hear four eighth notes (suggesting something steady) but the voice enters halfway through the final one.


The curious thing about the recording above - with the composer at the piano - is that the singer basically comes in after four full eighth notes as if it had been notated this way:
It would be tempting to say that the performers are mis-reading the pianist's own music. In fact, that is literally true, but in a broader sense, this is a nice example of how notation can be both limiting and - maybe - freeing. Although one could plausibly interpret this situation as the composer simply changing his mind about how the song should start, one could also think of the syncopated notation as more suggestive than literal. I love the idea of suggestive notation. So what is Hoiby suggesting?

When I see something like this with a missing downbeat, it somehow communicates that the music should be a bit off the ground. It suggests a floating sensation which probably means my wrists will come up as the fingers go down. This is as opposed to a grounded sensation in which I'd let my arm weight sink into the keys more. What difference does that make? Well, pianists have been arguing for ages about how touch and weight affect sound, and I don't want to get into the physics of whether any variable other than velocity is in play. But I do think the imagination of this floating sensation can have an effect on how the music comes out...somehow.

It's possible Hoiby also wants a sense that the sound doesn't really have a strong beginning; we're just tuning into a figure which has been going on imperceptibly until it sneaks in pianissimo. Unfortunately, Hoiby's performance, at least as it comes across in recording, doesn't quite fulfill that ideal as the low E-flat is actually quite rich and present. This recording, also featuring the composer at the piano, achieves this gently tuning in effect a bit better, though in this case I hear Hoiby's rhythm as closer to this (it's an important reality that performances of clearly notated music won't and shouldn't always come out mathematically precise):
That version also feels different because it is transposed a full major 3rd lower, which makes a big difference in this low piano register. The intro bar here is also simply slower than what follows so it has an out of time feeling, which perhaps is what Hoiby hoped to suggest? Or, more realistically, what he came to want. A very important consideration here is that sometimes composers don't know exactly what they want - or what they want changes after going to press.

I suppose Hoiby might be astonished that I've spent even this much time thinking about it, but he's asking for....something... with this kind of notation. I've now spent too many years thinking about that unmoored syncopation to be satisfied with something that doesn't approximate the rhythm shown. For me, it should suggest a very gentle rocking motion over which a melody comes floating in from above. [In addition to rocking, which fits with the lullaby character, another image that comes to mind is of a shepherd lightly plucking harp strings nonchalantly against a melody; this image goes well with the pastoral character of Blake's poem.]

The fact that the melody and rocking motion are out of sync should not create tension but rather suggest an equilibrium between two complementary gestures. Below is a recording I made years ago of my arrangement for solo piano. While I can't say definitively that the first low E-flat doesn't sound like a downbeat, I do like the continuity of that figure into the more obviously offbeat left-hand as the song continues:


I also couldn't resist doing a little audioshopping of the first Hoiby recording posted above. Here, I've compressed the space (by about a sixteenth) right before the singer enters, and I prefer it to Hoiby's unaltered performance. So for all my speculation about Hoiby wanting something less literal than he wrote, I still want something less pedestrian than what he settled on. I wonder if he simply found that the ideal of an imagined downbeat works better for the performer than the listener.


Of course I'm always interested in the connections this kind of situation sparks in my memory. In this case, as I thought about the notation, I had a strong sense I'd experienced a similar rhythmic challenge in another well-known art song. I kept thinking it was probably something by Schumann because...well, because that was my intuition and I know that Schumann loved to write in suggestive ways. But I also wondered if I was remembering something by Fauré or Debussy. It took a good night's sleep and a good hour's more thinking about it before I finally remembered the opening to this little song from Schumann's Op. 39 Liederkreis:

You may hear it sung here. I would not say this is one of my favorite Schumann songs, but there's no missing that suspended gesture in the very short intro. I'm sure my mind made this Hoiby  Schumann association because coaching a singer to find the downbeat in one is closely analogous to the other. The Schumann intro is ultimately easier and more natural both because 1) the notes aren't jumping around and 2) coming in on an upbeat doesn't feel quite so off-kilter as the out-of-the-blue downbeat in Hoiby. (The Schumann has still bewildered more than a few students.) Hoiby's choice to begin with such a low note also makes it sound more like a downbeat to begin with than Schumann's mid-range, second inversion harmonies. But I can't help wonder if Hoiby had Schumann's accompaniment in mind (consciously or not) and if he hoped to achieve a similar effect. 

However, I think Schumann was in a class by himself when it comes to this sort of floating above ground rhythmic/metrical gesture. The opening song and final postlude of Dichterliebe achieve this beautifully, even if downbeats are easy enough to find. You can hear the first song here and the impossibly beautiful postlude (see below) beginning here at 29:34. Charles Rosen wrote memorably about Schumann's love for the fragment. Beginning a song with no clear center of gravity is a wonderful expression of that Romantic impulse to break away from rigid frames.


This final example from Schumann doesn't cause any ensemble problems for the performers, but the way the incandescent third movement of his Piano Quartet begins with an accented diminished chord on beat 2 achieves the same suspended effect. Steady downbeats soon follow, but after the gorgeous main tune has been explored, the piano right hand begins a wandering melody at 1:40 which is gently syncopated against the left hand. Soon it's not clear what's a beat and what's an offbeat and we are simply floating. 


As a sort of postscript, I'll mention one other song which came to mind when I was doing a mental search for what turned out to be Schumann. The opening of Hugo Wolf's Ich hab' in Penna has confused many singers-in-training for similar reasons as Schumann and Hoiby, though it is quite different in character. Here, the frantic piano part begins with constant eighth notes starting on the "and of 1" and the singer should begin on the "and of 1" in the next bar. Though this isn't really a syncopation because there's no rhythmic stress on an offbeat, the absence of an initial downbeat helps propel the song's headlong energy. However, some singers can't help but hear the first note as a downbeat (even when the pianist tries to put a subtle accent on beat 3) so this misleads them into starting one eighth note too late. It's not so hard for the prepared pianist to right the ship but that makes for an uncomfortable mental gear shift! Hear here. (No pianist needs the stress of an unsettled start knowing that terrifying postlude is just around the corner.)



Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Smiles of a Sondheim Night

The subject of today's post is definitely on the trivial side of things, and I debated whether it merited a blog post. Then I remember that this sort of triviality is one of the things I care about the most, and the blog exists to document just this sort of thing. A blog devoted to the intersection of "music and the mind" should certainly have time for situations when the mind uncovers some unexpected musical connection. Quite the opposite of some scholar digging out connections from painstaking research, the magic is that I did not seek them. They found me using all those strange musical circuits our brains assemble to...well, to do whatever it is we're doing when we do music. This isn't just words about music - it's neuroscience!

First some quick background, because the swirling worlds and words of social media often play a big part in how these pathways take shape. On Friday, Facebook reminded me of a favorite memory from eight years ago. Here's what I wrote about my then teenage daughter:

[My daughter] just blew my mind. I'd (playfully, of course) told her if she sang "I'm so fancy" one more time, I wouldn't drop her off at home before I went to pick up her siblings. She defiantly starts in wordlessly intoning the first four notes and then, on the fly, switches to "For All the Saints" which, improbably, starts with the same four notes. I was in equal measures appalled and so proud. (Sol, mi re, do...)

If you don't know the past-its-prime Iggy Azalea song or the Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn tune, you may hear both in this little audio illustration I created:



With some help from a Facebook friend, I realized that this admittedly simple melodic formula - a descending 5-3-2-1 - has been used to begin many a famous melody. For example:



Although my friend pointed out the Tchaikovsky connection as one she noticed, it's worth noting that I only found the other tunes by searching on Themefinder.org. 

This in turn reminded me of Leonard Bernstein's wonderful "Infinite Variety of Music" lecture in which he explores melodies beginning with an ascending 5-1-2-3, which he refers to as the "How dry I am" motif.  I once posted my own annotated version of that lecture audio to YouTube. The "How dry I am" part begins around nine minutes in:



As Bernstein says, some of these melodies (whether his 5-1-2-3 family or my 5-3-2-1 family) sound remarkably different due to rhythmic/metric/harmonic factors. I've gone decades never noticing the connections between the 5-3-2-1 tunes in that first set I just posted. Thus, I still believe there's something special going on when someone like my daughter intuits such a link.

So it is that we come to my favorite recent connection, even though it is quite ephemeral and only deals with three little notes. Of course, with some effort, one could easily find a Bernsteinian infinite number of ways in which a three-note motif like this next one occurs in various contexts, but this thematic connection is a bit more magical because of the linked contexts.

For various reasons, I found myself watching and listening to a few different versions of Sondheim's A Little Night Music late last week. This led me to watch Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1955 Bergman film on which Sondheim's 1973 musical is based. The Bergman film is not a musical, though it has an attractive soundtrack by Erik Nordgren. But I'll admit I wasn't paying close attention to the score.

Lo and behold, at a particularly pivotal moment when the young Henrik storms out of a momentous dinner party, my ears were drawn to a little motif in the orchestra. I just made a mental note in the moment, but when I went back to check later, it confirmed what I'd heard. The first three notes of Sondheim's iconic "Night Waltz" theme are played quietly but emphatically at the end of a restless minor key phrase. In a minor key, the notes would be 3-2-1, though in Sondheim's major-key waltz melody, the scale degrees would be 5-#4-3.

Never mind the analysis, I think the connection can pretty easily be heard, and it's no big surprise that it found me because Sondheim uses that motive over and over. I'd surely heard it dozens of times in the days leading up to hearing Nordgren's otherwise quite different music. I'm not suggesting that Sondheim borrowed this idea from Nordgren, though it's not inconceivable that it had somehow stuck in his head. But I enjoyed thinking about this odd little portal from 1955 to 1973.

In this first video, you may see the short original scene. Just as Henrik turns to face the table (with back to us), Nordgren's orchestra plays the motif. We hear it even more intensely as Henrik runs out of the room, this time in a 3-2-1 version. (A flat 2 is a particularly intense way to approach the first scale degree.) 



In the following, I've tried to incorporate the Sondheim theme. Mostly I did this because I enjoy this sort of challenge (which involves adjusting keys, tempi, etc.) It doesn't fit perfectly into the original context because Sondheim's theme is too elegant and charming for this particular high-stakes moment, but I still enjoy the collage. Having written in my previous post about appreciating when directors aren't afraid of soundtrack silence, I'll admit I'm undercutting Bergman's original conception. In his film, the score fades to silence as Anne calls after Henrik and seems as if she might faint. The silence underscores the awkwardness for those left behind.

My new Sondheimed version seems a little out of place at first (though one could hear the waltz's gentility as underscoring Henrik's "forgive me"), but as Anne falters, the lilting waltz theme takes on a new meaning when her husband and maid come to her side. I think that part actually works, first to accompany her dizziness with the dizzying sweep of the waltz theme and then arriving at a climax as her husband and maid arrive to check on her. The theme then flutters away as she exits, leaving her husband to question many things.



I have often thought of such connections as portals - ways in which our own powers of perception can lead from thinking about one musical work to another. My favorites of the portals I've investigated in the past include:

  • oddly similar "held bassoon note" moments in two otherwise completely different works by Mendelssohn and Copland. 
  • the ways in which works by Beethoven and R. Strauss combine into Bernstein's "Somewhere."
    • (that portal from Beethoven to Strauss is effected by knowledge of Bernstein's tune!)
  • the seemingly endless connections between Mozart's three most famous violin concerti
I don't think I'll ever lose interest in this sort of thing, but I can't tell you when I'll post the next one because I won't be looking for it!

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P.S. As you might imagine, I've watched that one-minute Bergman clip many times in the past few days. The intentional framing of the scene is pretty clear, first with the vivid table arrangement of all the guests seated opposite Madame Armfeldt and with how Henrik is framed facing the table (the priest-to be standing as if facing an altar), back to us - but it wasn't until after many viewings that I noticed Bergman flips the room perspective immediately after Henrik leaves. It's odd because it almost seems as if Anne is going the wrong way when she gets up to follow Henrik - he's just left the scene by running away from us, and now she runs towards us. I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting!

Monday, September 5, 2022

Composing on Camera

[bit of meandering post here...I don't get to my main topic until the tenth paragraph]

I've been thinking about music in movies recently on a variety of fronts. I recently re-watched the 2012 film A Late Quartet, which is a pretty rare example of a mainstream movie set almost entirely within the world of classical music.* Although Philip Seymour Hoffman is amazing as the insecure second violinist, Christopher Walken is fun to watch as a soft-spoken aging cellist, and the story explores some interesting themes (not just musical ones), my main issue here is with the music - not with the late Beethoven quartet which is a main "character," but with the soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti.

This is not intended as a slight against Badalamenti's skills, but his music has an overtly emotional "here's what you should be feeling" tone which, while suitably autumnal (since the film focuses on a character's journey with age), simply feels too intrusive and sentimental. If they'd asked me (they didn't!), I'd have suggested that the Beethoven quartet featured (Op. 131) would stand out better if the dramatic scenes were allowed to play with little or no music - except for Beethoven. As it is, the drama tends towards a "soap opera" level of melodrama, and Badalamenti's score leans into that very strongly. (You may hear it for yourself here. Basically a late Romantic, Elgar/Delius sort of sound dominated by warm strings and warm woodwinds, especially clarinet. Weeping melodies, poignant harmonies...nothing offensive, but somehow so pointedly emotional as to sound generic. Conventional in a way that is the opposite of late Beethoven.)

Again, this is not to judge the composer too harshly. In this interview, he so much as says his goal was to underline the emotion: "Yaron [the director] and I agreed that the score should emote passion and pain. The characters are beset with a series of hardships which are all very personal. We needed to feel this." But did we need his music in order to feel this? What's been curious for me to realize over the years is that, as much as I love music, I don't love having music tell me what to feel in scenes which are supposed to feel genuine. (Opera and musical theater are something else, of course.) A good script and good acting should be enough, and I wish directors were less afraid of silence. (My own feelings may be colored in part by the fact that my ears are too easily drawn to music, so even background music can be distracting.)

A re-watch of 1967's The Graduate a few weeks ago confirmed this for me. As iconic as the Simon and Garfunkel songs are, they are used only intermittently and quite purposefully, not as window dressing. Yes, it's ironic that its most famous song is The Sound of Silence, but the sound of silence is genuinely important in many scenes, especially some of the most uncomfortable ones. Many of the best, most intense scenes play out with no music.

In the case of A Late Quartet, I believe that letting Beethoven's music be the only music would have better underlined the otherworldly power of late Beethoven. There's something odd for me about being pulled back and forth between two musical worlds in one film, and though Badalamenti is not trying to be Beethoven, I can't help but feel that his music suffers by comparison. (In fairness, it may have been difficult enough to get a movie made about a string quartet, so perhaps they thought it helpful to portray these characters as regular people by using regular film music.)

As it happens, my favorite movie I saw this summer is a tiny little French film, Petite Maman, which boldly uses almost no music, allowing quiet scenes to play out with silence as a powerful frame for the subtleties of the story. About an hour into the 73-minute runtime, two young girls briefly discuss music while taking turns listening through headphones - we see them listen, but we hear nothing. Suddenly, an entire scene plays out scored by a bright, Europop song which....well, it's not really my cup of tea, but it still packs an incredible dramatic punch because of what has preceded. In this case, the music is very emotional and absolutely helps us understand an emotional breakthrough, but its power comes from the fact that there has been so much quiet before this moment.


Of course, there are movies in which wall-to-wall music makes sense. I rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy this summer, and John Williams' space opera score works wonders there. Just try watching these deleted scenes which have no underscoring (or sound effects or significant editing, to be fair) and one can see how much this film would not work if it relied on its screenplay and acting.


A Late Quartet also offers an opportunity to think about the contrast between diegetic music (music actually experienced as music by characters on screen) and any other type of music which is added for the viewer's benefit (?). I'll take this opportunity and any opportunity I can to observe that Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind is the best example I know of a movie which relies almost entirely on diegetic music - the performances of the three folk groups created for this story, with the original songs sung by the actors, are the key to its magic. The songs are fun and sometimes poignant, and we feel how closely connected they are to the characters.


Of course, the structural simplicity and brevity of folk songs make it much easier to incorporate them in full than it would be with a 40-minute string quartet. It would also be far too much to ask the actors from A Late Quartet to play Beethoven for real, though they do an admirable enough job faking it, and the Brentano String Quartet's actual playing is fantastic. Nonetheless, I wish the director/producers had been brave enough to let the music speak for itself a bit more. Imagine using this frenetic Presto instead of the generic Jogging music Badalamenti wrote. Imagine letting us feel the cold New York scenery in which these lost characters live with this instead of this. As it is, the only really complete Beethoven we get is when the closing scene performance of Op. 131's finale continues all the way through the credits. 

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Now to shift gears to the main thing I wanted to write about: characters writing music on screen. There's a very special subset of diegetic music which occurs when we get to see/hear a composer write the music as part of the story. It requires a good bit of hubris to think that film can really take us inside this mysterious process which, after all, probably happens most often inside a composer's head, but it's surely the kind of thing that interests people. We all would like to look inside that creative process. 

I'm going to cite three favorite examples, though I'd be curious to know if you know of others. First up, I'll steal a scene cited in a memorable sequence from That's Entertainment, Part 2. As absurd and over-the-top as it is, this imaginary carriage ride in which Johan Strauss II writes Tales from the Vienna Woods is kind of brilliant, and it's ridiculously fun to watch. I particularly appreciate how slowly it develops and that we get to see brief moments of the composer feeling stuck and unsatisfied, though these blocks are quickly removed. 



The second scene I have in mind is probably the most famous and acclaimed of its type. Although I have mixed feelings about the overall success of Amadeus as a film (mostly due to some of the acting, and a few stage-y scenes which don't play as well for me on screen), it's hard to resist the drama of a dying Mozart dictating the Confutatis maledictus to his awestruck rival, Salieri. Though Peter Shaffer's original play was enormously successful, this best scene from the film was newly written by Shaffer for the film. The playwright later admitted to regretting a few overly simplistic details (like Salieri being confused by simple tonic/dominant harmonies), but this is a great example of how diegetic music can work both as subject matter and as emotional/dramatic framing. (Also a reminder of how effective it can be to stick with the music of a composer subject for all of the soundtrack as Mozart's music is absolutely the MVP of Amadeus.) 

Now, having gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, it might seem like I'm lazily settling back into the ridiculous, but this final scene is actually the most successful composition scene I can think of, and it comes not from stage or the big screen but from a 1970's sitcom. Somehow, in about three minutes, the brilliant Tony Randall convincingly writes an entire song. A very stupid, silly song, yes, and with more emphasis on the development of the lyrics, but a song nonetheless, with references to leitmotif, melodic direction, and word painting along the way. I, of course, have no business posting this video but I couldn't find it elsewhere and so far YouTube has only notified me that copyrighted content is recognized - it's not taking it down. The songwriting begins around 1:58, although I've included part of the opening scene for context - especially as it lets us hear a sample of Felix's previous songwriting prowess.




Now that's a strange line-up: Cartoonish Johann Strauss, Melodramatic Mozart, and giddy Tony Randall, but I think it shows an interesting variety of ways in which the composing process can be shown to viewers. Let me know what I've missed!

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* P.S. There are a few high-profile classical music movies on the horizon. Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a fictional composer/conductor is coming out soon and Maestro, Bradley Cooper's biopic about Leonard Bernstein, is set to arrive in 2023.

P.P.S. Another famous movie/theater song supposedly written on the spot is Do-Re-Mi, though it arrives too fully formed to seem like something in process. (Although maybe with more time Maria could have done better than "LA, a note to follow SO," which seems lazy and also messes up the solfège since in this case SO is sung on TI.)

P.P.P.S. One could make the case that this documentary scene shows a new song, Get back, coming to life before our eyes. Of course, this vernacular style lends itself more naturally to "writing out loud" than do many other styles of music. 

P.P.P.P.S. I once wrote here about my then Top 13 Movie list with brief discussion on the role of music in each.