“I was born very young into a world very old.” – Erik Satie
Erik Satie (1866-1925) lived his looney life with a playful attitude. He was often overcome by unexpected fits of laughter. He wore nothing but gray velvet and carried black velvet umbrellas. During a love affair with a woman named Suzanne, he bought her a necklace made of sausages and said he liked the way she belched. His playfulness was evident in the titles of his musical compositions:
“Genuine Limp Preludes (For a Dog)"
“Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Boob Made of Wood"
“Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss in the Eye"
“Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”
Satie's music is often described as wallpaper music. The music is easy to understand and comforting for listeners. His Gnossiennne No. 1, for example, provides music that is quite somber and beautiful. (By the way, “Gnossienne” is a word that didn’t exist until Satie created it as a title for this piece.)
And here's a version of Satie’s well-known Gymnopédie No. 1, performed and animated by Stephen Malinowski. Malinowski describes Gymnopédie No. 1 as a "languorous melody moving just once (or less) each beat, accompanied by one bass note and one chord per measure.”
At the time Maurice Ravel composed Boléro he was 53 years old and suffering from the early stages of FTD (frontotemporal dementia). Those afflicted with the disease slowly lose their ability to speak and understand the speech of others. The disease is also marked by compulsive behavior and spurts of creativity.
Boléro might easily be classified as an exercise in compulsive behavior. One might also hear it as a product of Ravel's disease. The entire piece is built on a single melody divided into two phrases repeated nine times. A drum beat based on a Spanish bolero begins the piece and is then repeated over and over until the end. Here’s how Ravel described the piece.
“… What I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music‘ — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts and there is practically no invention save the plan and manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal ... folk-tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity … I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave it.”
Boléro was Ravel’s last great work. As his disease worsened, he was unable to compose music, and he died in 1937, nine days after undergoing experimental brain surgery.
In 2008, The New York Times published an article about Dr. Anne Adams, a woman who had been trained in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Like Ravel, Dr. Adams suffered from FTD.
In 1994, when Dr. Adams was in the early stages of the disease, she became obsessed with Ravel’s Boléro. Then, at age 53, she began painting “Unraveling Boléro,” a painting that provided a visual image of Ravel’s music with the height, shape, and color of the images in the painting corresponding to each bar of the music.
Just as Vincent van Gogh was known for forging great paintings from his own mental illness, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro and Anne Adams’ “Unraveling Boléro” provide a journey into minds afflicted with FTD. Both Ravel and Adams were 53 years old when they began wrestling with Boléro. Consider this an example of illness serving as creativity's muse.
Ravel, Boléro (Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Wiener Philharmonic)
Dr. Anne Adams, "Unraveling Bolero"
Many thanks to the Radiolab podcast titled "Unraveling Bolero" for introducing me to this story.
The Top Secret Drum Corps is based in Basel, Switzerland, a city that is said to have over 3000 active drummers performing in a culture rich in the tradition of drumming. Top Secret gained recognition for its controversial challenge to the traditional Basel style of drumming, playing faster and more playfully than the Basel tradition was willing, at first, to allow. The success of Top Secret at international festivals has evidently ended the controversy.
In 2015, the UK’s Classic FM created a Movie Music Hall of Fame by polling their listeners. I participated in the poll and chose three soundtracks that I believed were integral to the character of their films. In other words, I can’t imagine these films without their soundtracks, and when I think of these films one of the first things that comes to mind is the music. Here’s my HOF candidates (listed in order):
To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 (music by Elmer Bernstein)
On the Waterfront, 1954 (music by Leonard Bernstein)
I first heard about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hands when I was in college and a friend of mine, a piano major, was told that she would not be required to play some of Rachmaninoff’s music because she lacked the reach in her fingers. Since that day, I have noticed that it is difficult to read about Rachmaninoff without the size of his hands creeping into the text. Indeed, the legend of his hands is so pervasive that I often sense writers grasping for adjectives to describe his hands the way someone learning to swim might struggle to breathe.
In The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg writes that Rachmaninoff’s hands were “supple,” “spectacular,” and “phenomenal.” Wikipedia states, “Rachmaninoff possessed extremely large hands, with which he could easily maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations.” In 2010 The Soundpost News reported that his oversized hands were "contrarily delicate.”
And how big were Rachmaninoff's hands? In A Walk on the Wild Side, the pianist Earl Wild states, “His reach extended to a twelfth!” Put another way, Max Harrison in Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings reports that Rachmaninoff could "with his left hand stretch C–E-flat–G–C–G and the right could manage C (second finger)–E–G–C–E (thumb under).”
Sit at a piano and see if your fingers can stretch from middle C to G in the next octave. Anyone with average-sized hands will probably be astonished that fingers can reach that far.
The reason Rachmaninoff's hands were so large may have stemmed from a genetic disorder. In the British Medical Journal(Volume 293, December 20-27, 1986) D.A.B. Young states, “The extraordinary size and extensibility of Rachmaninoff's hands might indicate Marfan's syndrome.”
The disease is also mentioned in Wikipedia: “Along with his musical gifts, Rachmaninoff possessed physical gifts that may have placed him in good stead as a pianist. These gifts included exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch. Rachmaninoff's slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose also suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain and bruising of the fingertips.”
And how did the size of Rachmaninoff's hands affect his musical performance? Earl Wild states, “Hand size makes no difference whatsoever when playing the piano. As for the ideal fingers, Chopin’s boney, tapered fingers were perfect. Rachmaninoff also had marvelously tapered fingers, although in his case, it was his lush sound that made him famous as a pianist.”
Earl Wild also points out that the size of Rachmaninoff’s hands my have been an obstacle in his musical performance. “Rachmaninoff’s large hands, although a blessing, caused great problems for him…. In octave playing a large hand can be helpful, but an over-sized hand is definitely a hindrance. This is the reason we find so few octave passages in his compositions.”
If Rachmaninoff had not been a great musician, wholly committed to developing his skills as an artist, the size of his hands would not have mattered. He was not only one of the most highly acclaimed pianists of the twentieth century, he was also a great conductor and composer. Focusing too much attention on the size of his hands may be nothing more than an amusing sideshow.
As D.A.B. Young concluded in his article about Rachmaninoff's Marfan syndrome, “I should add that Rachmaninov's eminence as a pianist was founded as much on his interpretation of the music of others, especially Chopin, as on the extraordinary virtuosity he displayed in performing some of his own compositions. Undoubtedly, his hands contributed to his virtuosity; but for his interpretation of others' work it was artistic genius, not large hands, that made his performance so memorable.”
Rachmaninoff playing the First Movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2
(Recorded in 1929 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)
When Claude Debussy composed Syrinx in 1913 it was the first significant work for solo flute composed since C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in A Minor in 1763. The technical improvements added to the flute by Theobald Boehm in the mid-1800s made the piece possible, allowing Debussy to showcase what could be done with the new and improved flute. As a flute player myself, I have played the piece often and enjoyed the flexibility in how it can be interpreted.
What type of music do I most enjoy? The answer depends on my mood. Some days I turn to folk, jazz, or rock. If I'm in the mood for classical music, I must make a choice about whether I want to hear something form the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern era. If I decide to hear something from the Romantic era, I must then decide whether I’m in the mood for Chopin, Brahms, or Mahler.
So much music. So many choices. So little time.
I will say, however, that no matter what type of music I choose I’m likely to bump into Bach — I can't escape him. His music is everywhere, inserting itself on all types of music and entertainment.
I turned to an old episode of Northern Exposure recently and caught the character played by Barry Corbin drinking wine and listening to the Goldberg Variations. A few days later I was streaming Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and heard Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Every week or so I hear Jon Batiste greeting one of Stephen Colbert’s guests with something from Bach. After Sarah Silverman sat on Colbert’s couch, she asked Batiste, “What was that?” Batiste answered, “Bach,” as if Silverman should have known. She should have.
I hear Bach’s influence in songs by the Beatles, as well as the introduction to the Door’s Light My Fire. When I listen to jazz, I often hear music derived from Bach.
No matter where I’m going, there I am — listening to Bach. Bach died over 265 years ago, but more than any other composer his music is ubiquitous in our culture.
Just look at the information below.
The Internet Movie Database lists 1361 movie and television soundtracks from 1931-2018 that use Bach’s music. This number has increased from 755 since I first looked at it three years ago for a class I was teaching on Bach, and I expect the number will keep increasing. Anyone who watches movies and television cannot escape Bach.
Fifty Shades of Grey (Concerto in D minor)
The Butler (Partita No. 1 in B-flat)
The Iron Lady (Prelude in C major from Well-Tempered Clavier I)
The English Patient (Goldberg Variations)
Silence of the Lambs (Goldberg Variations)
Die Hard (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)
The Godfather (Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor)
Sunset Boulevard (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
Fantasia (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
Bach has influenced or been quoted directly in numerous popular songs.
The Beach Boys, “Lady Lynda” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)
Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Air on the G String)
The Doors, “Light My Fire” – Ray Manzarek said his keyboard playing was influenced by Bach
Jethro Tull, “Bourée” (“Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
The Beatles, “In My Life” (listen for the Bach-influenced keyboard solo)
The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (listen for the trumpet solo influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 2)
The Beatles, “Blackbird” (see the video embedded below to hear Paul McCartney explain the influence of the “Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
Bach has influenced or been quoted directly by numerous jazz artists.
Modern Jazz Quartet, "Fugue in A Minor”
Classical Jazz Quartet, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2”
Donald Fox Quartet, “Variations on a Bach Fugue”
Bach’s music has been heard at numerous historical events.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich sat by the ruins of the wall and played the "Sarabande" from Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.
During the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, Isaac Stern was preparing to play at Jerusalem Hall when an air raid siren sounded, obviously causing great concern for people attending the concert. Stern stepped on stage and began playing Bach’s “Sarabande” from Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin to calm everyone down. People in the audience sat through the rest of his performance wearing gas masks. (Stern's gas mask was kept offstage in case he needed it.)
For ten days after the September 11 attacks on 2001, public radio stations in New York City adhered to an all-news format. On September 23, WNYC-FM reverted to its classical format with a program titled “Bach: Solace and Inspiration.” The host, David Garland, described the music as something that would “reassure and renew the spirit.” Garland played Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, Sleepers Wake, and Sheep May Safely Graze.
On September 11, 2002, Yo-Yo Ma played Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor at ground zero to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The names of those who died were read aloud as Ma played.
On January 27, 2010, Steve jobs introduced the iPad to the press by playing Bach on iTunes. Jobs had been listening to Bach since he was a teenager. Yo-Yo Ma, one of Jobs’ friends, played Bach at Jobs’ memorial in October 2011.
For almost 300 years, Bach's music has had a significant influence on musicians and composers, and it would not be stretching credulity to ask, “Who has NOT been influenced by Bach?”
Mozart studied Bach’s music and admired his ingenuity.
Beethoven thought of the Well-Tempered Clavier as his “musical Bible.”
Liszt memorized all forty-eight of the preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2.
Chopin told his students that Bach’s music was “the highest and best school.” Chopin spent two weeks before every concert playing nothing but Bach and did not even practice his own compositions to prepare for a concert, playing only Bach.
Mendelssohn admired Bach more than any other composer. His family had long supported a Bach salon in Berlin. Mendelssohn re-introduced Bach to European audiences after he had remained relatively unknown to the general public for almost eighty years.
Schumann said, “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder…. We are all bunglers next to him.”
Brahms said, “The two greatest events of my lifetime are the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach Gesellschaft's publications."
Wagner proclaimed that the greatness of Bach was “almost inexplicably mysterious.”
Stravinsky went through a “neo-Bach” phase, composing music that used “the wonderful jolts, the sudden modulations, the unexpected harmonic changes, the deceptive cadences that are the joy of every Bach cantata.”
Villa-Lobos composed Bachianas Brasileiras, a collection of nine suites for various instruments and voice that were based on Bach’s style of composition.
Almost all modern musicians playing a keyboard instrument, string instrument, or wind instrument have developed their musical technique by playing Bach’s music.
There's so much more to say, but there it is … Bach is everywhere. You may find that it’s impossible to make it through the week without hearing Bach’s music or hearing a piece of music that bears his influence.
And why Bach? Why has Bach, more than any other composer, cast such an inescapable presence over music history?
First, let me state the obvious. Bach was a damned good composer, a highly skilled artist who gave us over 1100 pieces of music. In 1992, Phil G. Goulding published Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works and declared that Bach was the greatest composer of all time. In January 2011, a New York Times poll conducted by Anthony Tommasini also declared that Bach was history’s greatest composer. Even if he is not history's greatest composer, his music has certainly stood the test of time and remains as popular as ever.
The second reason that Bach’s music has become ubiquitous comes from its flexibility. Bach's music can be taken out of the early eighteenth century and easily transferred to the instruments and styles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Bach’s music can be transposed and transformed to adapt to changing technology. It can be adapted to almost any format or medium, from chamber orchestras to full-size orchestras, from lutes to rock bands to digital performances. Bach’s music lends itself to constant reinvention. We can also listen to it as it sounded in the eighteenth century, and it will still sound great to the modern ear.
There's no doubt that long after everyone reading this blog is gone, the world will still be listening to the ubiquitous Bach.
Paul McCartney explaining how Bach influenced "Blackbird" and other songs
Modern Jazz Quartet, Fugue in A Minor
Yo-Yo Ma Playing Bach at a September 11 Memorial
The inspiration and much of the information for this blog came from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie, a book I highly recommend.
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) lived in Madrid and Paris before settling for several years in Granada. In 1939, the Spanish Civil War forced him to move to Argentina where he died in 1946. Often regarded as the greatest Spanish composer of the twentieth century, Falla has been classified as part impressionist and part neo-classicist, composing stage works (including musical comedies, ballets, and operas), orchestral music, vocal music, chamber music and piano music. He is known for composing music that sounds distinctly Spanish.
And why am I writing about Falla? Frankly, I am looking for an excuse to embed the following two videos on this blog. The Hommage pour le Tambeau de Debussy is haunting and the performance of the "Ritual Fire Dance" is great fun. I recommend turning up the volume for the Fire Dance.
"[Hommage pour le Tombeau] is only four minutes long, but includes twenty minutes of music."
– Benjamin Britten
Falla, Hommage pour le Tombeau de Debussy, Justyna Sobczak, guitar
Falla, "Ritual Fire Dance" from El Amor Brujo
(Arranged by R. Leopold and performed by Cellomania Croata directed by V. Despalj.)
It’s not that people don’t like classical music. It’s that they don’t have the chance to understand and to experience it.
– Gustavo Dudamel
I have spent over twenty years teaching students in high school and continuing education classes about music history. Most students enter my classes knowing little about music, and I have gained much experience helping those who are new to classical music — the tyros, I call them — learn to understand and enjoy what they are hearing. To help students in my classes I have come up with five suggestions for learning to enjoy classical music.
Five Steps Toward Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music
1. Listen to a piece of music several times.
If I placed only one suggestion on my list, this would be it. The more you listen to a great piece of music, the more you will understand it, and the more you understand it, the more you will enjoy it. It’s almost that simple.
Unlike most movies or books, a piece of classical music gets better if you have experienced it numerous times. As much as you might enjoy watching a film like The Shawshank Redemption, you probably don’t need to repeat the experience dozens of times. Even the greatest films have their limits.
But that is generally not true of great music. If you only listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony once, you might not be able to grasp the narrative of each movement and how the movements relate to each other. If you listen to the symphony several times, however, you should begin to understand the narrative, and it should eventually begin affecting you intellectually and emotionally.
Think about it. A rock group's biggest ovation at a concert most likely comes from a song the audience knows well, not from a song the audience has never heard. The same is true with classical music. You are most likely to enjoy the pieces you know best. With good music, familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds adulation.
The desire to hear a great piece of music several times is not limited to classical music. It is also true of so-called popular music. I assume most Beatles fans enjoy the song “Let It Be.” Even if those who like the song have heard it a hundred times, they could probably listen to it again. A good song never grows old.
The same is true of classical music, although classical music differs from pop music in a significant way — most pop songs are easier to understand than classical music. Whether a pop song is about unrequited love or some other version of “can’t get no satisfaction,” the music and message is generally understandable after only a few hearings, maybe even the first hearing.
Understanding classical music generally takes a little more work. For one thing, a piece of classical music is often longer, containing much more information and musical content. But if you give classical music the time it deserves and listen to a piece of music several times, the rewards will be tremendously satisfying. Music composed by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven has survived over two hundred years for a reason — it is great music. The music is too good not to enjoy, and repeated hearings will only enhance your enjoyment.
2. Put some time and effort into learning the terminology of music.
Again, enjoying classical music is different from enjoying a good movie. In most cases, you can understand a Hollywood film while possessing little or no knowledge of cinematic technique. Most films require no extra homework to figure them out.
A piece of classical music, on the other hand, requires a little work. Without knowing a few basic musical terms and the general outline of music history, a piece of classical music might not make sense, sounding like a series of random tones, some more pleasant than others. Classical music requires you to know the difference between a concerto, sonata, symphony, and symphonic poem. You need to know the characteristics of music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. And it takes a little effort to learn some of this.
Before you can begin to understand Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, you should probably know the answer to a few questions. What is a symphony? How many movements are in a symphony? What are the expectations for each movement? What does it mean that the symphony is in a minor key? What did audiences expect from a symphony in Mozart’s time? Is it a programmatic symphony?
Mozart, Symphony No. 40, First Movement (New England Conservatory Youth Symphony)
If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you can still enjoy Mozart’s symphony, or at least parts of it. However, you will likely enjoy it much more if you listen with a little knowledge about what is happening in the music, as well as the symphony’s historical context.
If you know nothing about music and the task of learning so much history seems daunting, hang in there — your knowledge and enjoyment will grow exponentially. The more you learn, the more you will discover that new pieces of music are easier to understand. The more you learn about Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, the easier it will be to understand symphonies by Haydn. You will then have a frame of reference for understanding Beethoven and the innovations he brought to writing symphonies. You will also be on your way to a better understanding of the composers who followed Beethoven. It’s all related.
3. Be able to place a piece of music within its historical context.
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement (1541)
All works of art are a product of the time and place of their creation. When you look at Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel you are not only observing the works of a great artist, you are paying a visit to the Italian Renaissance. Reading a book by Charles Dickens can take you back to Victorian England, and John Steinbeck can take you back to the Great Depression. Art and literature are like time machines that transport you to a different world and help you better understand that world.
Music works the same way. Just as songs written by the Beatles can take you back to the 1960s, Bach’s music can teach you something about German culture in the early eighteenth century. Shostakovich’s music can teach you volumes about Stalinist Russia.
The more you know about history, the more you can understand the environment in which a piece of music was created, and the more you understand that environment, the more you can enrich your experience of listening to music.
4. Learn about the composer who created the music.
Some composers are best described as skilled craftspersons who may not have been concerned about putting their personal lives and philosophies into their music. Other composers, however, used music as a form of personal expression, and some of their compositions cannot be completely understood without an examination of their personal biographies. In either case, you will want to know something about the person who composed the music your are trying to understand.
Although a composer like Bach did not generally use music as a form of personal expression, knowing something about his biography can help you understand the context in which his music was created. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, Bach created music for churches in Leipzig, Germany. Much of Bach’s music was therefore utilitarian, designed for performance in church. To understand Bach we should appreciate the degree to which his music glorifies God, not because he was a religious man (which he was), but because his job required him to create music for church services.
Beethoven, on the other hand, was one of the first significant composers to use music as a form of personal expression. The suffering he endured from loneliness and debilitating illness can be heard in some of his music. His Third Symphony can be heard as a testament to his personal heroism. His Fifth Symphony can be heard as an expression of the fate he confronted in losing his hearing. An understanding of Beethoven’s personal life enriches the experience of listening to his music.
Whether we are listening to Bach or Beethoven, a little biographical knowledge enhances the enjoyment of their music.
5. Learn to recognize how a piece of music is organized.
Just as a high school student writes an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion or a haiku with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, composers follow certain “forms” to give structure to their music. Understanding how to hear those forms is probably the most difficult of my five suggestions for learning how to understand and enjoy classical music. Nevertheless, learning to hear musical form is an essential element in taking your enjoyment of classical music to a higher level.
Listening to music with no knowledge of musical form is somewhat like attending a sporting event without knowing the rules of the game. Imagine watching a football game and not even knowing what players must do to score points. The game would be a jumbled mess. The game is more fun if you simply knew that players are trying to move the ball ten yards in four downs with the ultimate goal of scoring a touchdown.
For those who are new to classical music, knowing how a piece of music is organized is similar to learning the rules of a sporting event. Suddenly, everything will begin to make sense. The music will have a goal — a “story” with a beginning, middle, and end — and deciphering that story can be great fun.
I hope my five suggestions will help the Classical Tyros reading this blog become connoisseurs of great music. After all, the journey that people take to understand classical music is a journey that is guaranteed to bring more beauty and pleasure into their lives — a journey worth taking, no doubt.
If you're looking for more to help you get started, here's three articles from The Atlantic about how to appreciate classical music.