Saturday, June 25, 2016

Handel: Samson, Act I

What time is it? 3:06 pm on Friday 24 June
What coffee am I drinking? Napoletano (Italian roast)
What version am I listening to? The Sixteen & The Symphony of Harmony and Invention, conducted by Harry Christophers

Initial thoughts: Handel does an amazing job of taking a story without much action (Samson has already been captured and blinded, and he is now a slave for the Philistines) and yet creating something that is still full of drama. As in many of Handel's oratorios, the characters' thoughts and expression of feeling, rather than the plot, was most important. So, if there isn't much action happening, how does Handel create this drama? A few thoughts:
  1. Changes in mood
  2. Intriguing instrumental writing
  3. Character development
First of all, Handel is a master of "setting the mood". (I bet he really wooed the ladies if he did this on dates as much as he did in his music.) Samson's father, Manoa, shows a huge contrast of emotions within a single aria, Thy glorious deeds inspir'd my tongue. The first part of the aria shows a father's pride and joy because of his wonderful son; the second part changes to grief and despair due to his son's downfall and current pitiful condition. Handel writes two heart-wrenching arias for Samson in Act I: Torments alas! and Total eclipse! Right from the beginning of the latter, the lack of instruments shows Samson's feelings of aloneness and hopelessness in being blind. And even the choruses play quite different emotional roles: the chorus of Philistines comes in towards the beginning with their joy and exuberance, yet when the chorus of Israelites comes in later in Act I, they are much more reserved. 

Handel's music is so interesting not only because of the vocal music but also because of the instrumental writing. As Aaron Keebaugh said in his Boston Classical Review, ( “...but Handel’s instrumental writing is the soul of the story. Chromatic shadings lace the music’s sorrowful moments. At other times, the strings unleash a fury of darting figures, like strikes of lightning on a barren landscape, to capture Samson’s all-consuming anger.” We see this in Samson's aria Why does the God of Israel sleep? as Samson finally seems to move past his grief (at least for a moment) and, with zeal, becomes angry towards the Philistines and calls God to awaken and punish them. But the zeal is not only from Samson...the strings also have fire and zeal which give this song the energy it needs. 

And finally, this oratorio is like a great book in that the writing of the characters keeps the audience intrigued. Robert Hugill, in a Music and Vision review (, says that this tenor role of Samson is "one of the biggest and most heroic of Handel's tenor roles." What I love most about Samson's role, though, is the type of hero he is. He doesn't blame anyone else for the poor state he is in (blind, fallen from great strength to no strength, enslaved) but takes sole responsibility for it. Over and over again he blames himself for what has happened to him: "Whom have I to complain of but myself ... Myself the cause, who, vanquished by her (Delila's) tears, gave up my fort of silence ... Justly these evils have befall'n thy son; sole author I, sole cause, who have profan'd the mysteries of God; by me betray'd..." Now, you can still tell Samson is angry at Delila for the role that she played in his downfall (and, unfortunately, Samson seems to project annoyance on all women because of her), but I appreciate that he takes responsibility for his actions. If only more people could do that in our world...

Act I has set the stage for this oratorio by showing the pitiful state of Samson and the Israelites, and we've just begun to see his anger and zeal against the Philistines. Handel has done a wonderful job making this act interesting and intriguing. Although I know how the story ends, I'm excited to see the journey towards it in Act II and III!


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Liszt: Missa Choralis

“…take this music seriously as much for its musical message as for its religious inspiration."
- Marc Rochester, Gramophone Review

What time is it? 1:22 pm on Thursday 16 June.
What coffee am I drinking? Jamaican Me Crazy
What version am I listening to? I’m listening to the Hannover Boys Choir (Knabenchor Hannover), conducted by Heinz Hennig. Organ played by Tobias Götting.

Missa Choralis is thus just what Liszt intended from its inception: a prayer to God, given voice through sublime music.”
- Westminster Chorale, April 2010, program notes.
Stripping away the excess of anything that might be "showing off", this work definitely accomplishes its goal of making the listeners think about faith in Christ and what that means. They (the Christian faith and Missa Choralis) are not all fun and games; sometimes they're simple and sometimes complex; and they're certainly not (or shouldn't be...) anything self-absorbed. They are beautiful through their joy and also through their sorrow.

Wow...there are some incredibly beautiful moments in this that almost caught me off guard. The end of the Kyrie was the first of such moments...I love the interplay between the bass and the other voices and the wide shift of dynamics in a few bars.
Liszt: Missa Choralis - "Kyrie" ending
During the Gloria, the "laudamus te, benedicimus te" are so playful...I love the imagery of worshiping God ("laudamus te" means "we praise you" and "benedicimus te" means "we thank you") as being fun and playful.

But what really captured me in this work were the Credo and Benedictus...

The Credo is about seven and a half minutes long, but is creative and changed so much throughout that it really kept my attention. Liszt uses text painting so well: Unison voices sing "I believe in one God...and in one Lord, Jesus Christ," but as the idea gets more complex ("Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible") the harmonies get more complex and the tonality shifts around (vi, v, VII, I, viio, III, VI). Each section of the Credo is so different (Credo/Crucifixus/Et in spiritum/Et vitam) and Liszt gets the point across in a concise but interesting and thoughtful manner.

I love the Benedictus. I really enjoy the harmonies, especially at the beginning. They seem very in line with what choral music in the mid- to late-20th century was doing, like Randall Thompson and Morten Lauridsen. The alternation between quartet and chorus is fun, and the ending is just incredible. Liszt strips the choir down less and less, finishing very simply with two light soprano voices.
Liszt: Missa Choralis - "Benedictus" ending
This work is a juxtaposition of Baroque (or even Renaissance) music and Romantic music. It has the harmonies and tonality shifts and dynamic contrasts of the Romantic style, but has removed the "operatic frills" as Humphrey Smith said in his Music Web International review. Liszt has stripped the mass down and laid the text bare for us to consider what is being said, but still allows us the beauty of being caught up in something that is not simply text and notes. It is not quite part of this world, showing perhaps a picture of faith itself: Christianity is certainly in, but not quite of, this world.

Thanks, Liszt.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

How to Listen to and Reflect on Music

So, how am I going to go about this ruminating process, you ask? Well, thank you for asking such a pertinent question that I am prepared to answer. Outlined below is the plan for how I will do my listening and reflecting.

  1. Choose a musical work to listen to. (see previous post for some of my options)
  2. Download the score from IMSLP (if available) and find a good recording on Naxos or the Berlin Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall (I highly recommend a subscription to this) or YouTube.
  3. Make some good coffee.
  4. Read a little about the chosen work: reviews, program notes, editorials, performance notes, etc.
    • Why was this work written? In response to something in their life or the world? Simply as a way to make money?
    • For who or where or when was this written?
    • Any other interesting historical tidbits.
  5. Listen to it, following along with the downloaded score
  6. Write some notes as I listen:
    • Specific sections of the work that are important or meaningful
    • Unique uses of voices, instruments, or text
    • Prevalent emotions and feelings of different sections
    • The arc of the story being told
    • Any other miscellaneous or funny ideas that happen upon me
  7. As soon as I finish listening, immediately type some responses:
    • Are there any sections I feel as though I need or want to listen to again?
    • What emotions were portrayed through this work?
    • What is the theme or message of the work? What is it trying to accomplish?
    • Why has this work lasted (potentially) hundreds of years? Why could it last hundreds of years more?
  8. Re-read my notes and shape them into a blog post.
  9. Add some pictures/media:
    • The composer
    • The performance I listened to (if available)
    • Screenshots of the score to show something in particular
    • Any other pictures/paintings that may help to describe the piece in a visual way to work I go! My next post will be offering some of my thoughts on Listz's Missa Choralis. As always, comment below and let me know if there are other things you find important in listening to and responding to music. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Blog Overture

Well, here you are! Welcome, and come on in!

To get us going, I want to first share the purpose for why this blog was created:

  1. I'm a teacher, it's summer break, and my wife and I are waiting around for the next 5 weeks or so until our baby gurl comes into the world (woohoo!), so I've got some time to kill.
  2. I want to get to know more major choral works, and I don't feel like I know that many, honestly.
  3. I have fun writing my thoughts down, so hopefully this will give me some motivation to listen to beautiful music and put my ideas to paper (or word processor).
Here are some of the musical works that have come to my mind so far as I've thought about doing this. This is certainly not an exhaustive list , so let me know if there are other works I should consider!
  • Liszt: Missa Choralis
  • Chilcott: Requiem
  • Rachmaninov: The Bells
  • Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
  • Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil
  • Bruckner: Mass No. 2 in E minor
  • Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast
  • Bach: Mass in B minor
  • Bach: St. Matthew Passion
  • Bach: Lots of cantatas
  • Haydn: Lots of masses
  • Delius: Sea Drift
  • Barnett: The Building of the Ship
  • Mendelssohn: St. Paul
  • Dvorak: Mass in D
  • Handel: Samson
  • Handel: Zadok the Priest
  • Handel: Solomon
  • Handel: Judas Maccabaeus
  • Handel: La Resurrezione
As I'll end all of my posts: Thanks.