2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

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Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

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Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

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La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

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Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

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La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

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Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

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Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

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Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

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Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Opera Highlight: Madama Butterfly

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Commemorative statue of Cio-Cio-san and her son in Nagasaki, Japan

One of my all time favorite operas and possibly the most heartbreaking thing one could ever either read, watch or listen to is Giacomo Puccini’s great masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is what could be called a ‘drawing room’ opera. There is no action or adventure. Everything, from the wedding to Butterfly’s death, takes place in and around a beautiful Japanese house on a hill. And yet, nowhere does the opera want for interest.

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The Pledge (誓), by Hirezaki Eiho

The story begins with an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, who has been stationed in Nagasaki for a time. While handsome and charming, he is a scoundrel, and has arranged for a temporary marriage to take place to ‘keep him entertained’ until he ships out again. This marriage is to a delicate and gentle Japanese girl, aptly named Cio-Cio, meaning ‘Butterfly’. Unaware of Pinkerton’s true intentions, she believes he genuinely cares for her and falls desperately in love with him. She renounces her religion and is disowned by her whole family. When Pinkerton is eventually reassigned, he tells her he will return. The poor girl believes him and patiently waits for him for three years. During this time, she bears his child, lives in poverty and rejects all handsome offers of marriage made to her on the grounds that she is already married. One day, Pinkerton does return, but to Butterfly’s horror, it is with a new, “real” American wife. In a sort of twisted attempt at reparation, they are there to take away Butterfly’s child and give him a good life in America. Knowing that she will never be able to properly support him, Butterfly does indeed give up her child. But she decides as her father did, that ‘It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor’. She takes her own life just as Pinkerton, for whom she waited so faithfully, arrives calling out her name.

Written out, the story seems very sad. But listening? I can honestly say that I have never encountered any work of art, visual, literary or musical which so touched my soul as Madama Butterfly. The story is heart-rending, the libretto (script) wonderfully crafted, and the music could draw tears from a stone.

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Giacomo Puccini

This opera is partially the result of the Orientalist movement. This was a popular movement in Europe for a long time, especially during the historically terrible Imperialist Era. The ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ view that the West had of the East was big money in entertainment, and plenty of musicians and artists made a quick buck by giving Europeans a cheap imitation of the East. Our composer Giacomo Puccini, however, stands apart. Rather than give the people their “fix of exoticism”, as it could be called, he strove for an authenticity that most artists of his time never even bothered with. Fascinatingly, his Madama Butterfly is filled with authentic Japanese folk tunes, which he studied in great detail to give a genuine Japanese flavor to his music. Despite limited knowledge and access to knowledge of it, Puccini did his very best to stay true to Japanese culture in his opera. Of course, not living in a very informed era on this subject, he got many things wrong. He did try, however, and many of his mistakes (such as a mildly inaccurate depiction of jigai) are easily corrected by modern productions.

What also sets Madama Butterfly apart is its shocking anti-Imperialist message. Similar to an earlier opera by Délibes, LakméMadama Butterfly tells the story of a wronged and abused woman in a wronged and abused culture. Butterfly seems to represent more than just one woman, but the entire culture of Japan, or even the whole of Asia. The abuse of the West towards its colonized lands is a black mark on Western history and one which found a sharp reproach in a work like Madama Butterfly. Who knows, but perhaps more than one person left the theater after this opera with a very different view on the East than he had when he entered.

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Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-san

Many people take Madama Butterfly in the wrong way, however, deeming it racist and filled with stereotypes. While I acknowledge the presence of the stereotypes, I respectfully disagree that the work is racist. While such a piece composed now would certainly be problematic, one has to consider the time that it came from. In such a time as the early 20th century, Madama Butterfly bordered on a slap in the face to Westerners for their haughty, imperialistic views of different cultures. Much like a butterfly, the important image of the opera, Westerners treated other cultures as nothing more than something you capture, kill and pin to a card as a decoration. This well delivered message is why I am at a loss when people pour hatred on this beautiful opera for racism. It seems to me the equivalent of condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its obvious racial stereotypes while ignoring the anti-slavery themes and the effect it had on society’s conscience. In the end, I believe it comes down to what I said in a previous article; that in many stories, accuracy is not the point. The message is.

Madama Butterfly was not immediately successful. People said that the music was too similar to some of Puccini’s earlier works, especially La Boheme. This is rather bewildering to me, as I have yet to find a single place where the scores are noticeably similar. The fact remained, however, that the opera had to be revised and re-released before it was given the success it deserved. In my opinion, this is fortunate, as the first version contains bits in the libretto which are vastly inferior and, indeed, trite compared to the later (and now standard) 1914 version. Nowadays, Butterfly is one of the most popular and commonly performed operas in the world.

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Yin Huang and Richard Troxell in Scorsese’s beautiful film version

While many operas do not have any really perfect recordings,  Madama Butterfly is fortunate to possess some of the very finest versions in all of recorded opera. Many of the most talented singers and conductors have recorded this opera and there are plenty of versions to choose from. However, my recommendation can only go to the 1974 recording magnificently conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Never will you find a more tender and haunting Butterfly than Mirella Freni, nor a more magnificently voiced and characterized Pinkerton than Luciano Pavarotti. The supporting cast is just as good, and I consider this to be one of the best opera recordings of all time. You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube in Parts I, II and III.

But it is always best to start off by watching an opera before you merely listen to it. And here, Butterfly is in luck again, as Martin Scorsese himself put out a filmed version of the opera in 1995, filmed on location in Japan. This version can also be watched on YouTube, complete with subtitles.

So enjoy! This is an exquisite opera and well worth the watch. If you need to be convinced, however, give a listen to some of the snippets from the opera. They should leave you entranced.

(Featured Image: Peonies and Butterflies, by Ito Jakuchu)

Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

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Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

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The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

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Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

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Coloratura Me Beautiful

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Clockwise: Sutherland, Mesplé, Anderson, Dessay, Pons, Moffo, Sills

If you needed to learn one word to begin navigation of the Operatic world, I would submit that the word you needed would be “Coloratura”. It’s not a word that one encounters almost anywhere but in opera, but when you’re talking about opera, you hear it a lot, and if you don’t know what it means, you’re going to be very confused.

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Joan Sutherland, the Queen of Coloratura

So what is Coloratura? Well, it is an Italian word, and literally means ‘coloring’. It is most often used in music, where it refers to vocal ornamentation, usually in sopranos and mezzo sopranos. It is all of that really impressive vocal work that makes the jaw drop, the eyes bulge and the hands applaud frenziedly. When you hear it, you can see how fitting the word ‘coloring’ is to describe it, as the wild, yet sophisticated decorations bring the vocal line vibrant new life. Trills, runs, and spectacular, sparkling high notes. A lot of it hardly sounds possible, and one might not believe it actually was possible if there wasn’t footage of such singing coming from a human body. It’s astonishing stuff, and even people who don’t enjoy opera can at least admire the amazing talent of singers who are masters of this technique. Let’s look at some, shall we?

Of course, you don’t have to watch the entire half-hour video (though it’s worth it), but if you want some highlights, I would suggest going to Lily Pons at 3:14, Anna Moffo at 5:19, and Joan Sutherland at 12:50. These singers really encapsulate the art of Coloratura. They sing the music accurately and beautifully all while making it look and sound positively easy, even though it most certainly is not.

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After you have finished the cadenza, then you have my permission to breathe.

One downside to coloratura is that, often, a singer must sacrifice the Drama in a scene in order to sing it well. This isn’t a problem in comedies, as it is easy to be bright and cheery while whistling out notes. But in tragedies and melodramas the lack of proper feeling can be a bit off-putting for the dramatically inclined. Watching the aforementioned Lily Pons, for example, you would never guess that the character is supposed to be terrified while she is forced to sing by her father. Ms. Pons just looks too… happy. But focusing on the complicated singing and on the acting is really too much for most singers who don’t possess superhuman powers. This is probably the main reason why true coloratura singers are on the decline these days, when there is a definite push towards drama over technique. I myself am more inclined to good acting and emoting than vocal accuracy, but it does pain the heart to see such talent on the decline.

The closest we come to that golden age of Coloratura Singers these days are singers like Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay, who, while excellent, still aren’t quite a Sutherland, Sills or Anderson. But I suspect that the pendulum will swing again at some point, and we will be drowning in melismatic vocals once more.

Thanksgiving Music: Beethoven’s Pastorale

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Happy Thanksgiving! Hosting the holiday at your home this year? The stress can be a bit much. Perhaps you’re not ready for Christmas music yet, but wouldn’t you rather be able to listen to background music than listen to Aunt Mabel’s background gossip about how your sister isn’t married yet? Or how your stage actor cousin doesn’t have a real job? Well, allow me to present a piece for your dinner, and not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it is about Thankfulness: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale). Here is a link to a lovely recording to play:

“Beethoven’s Symphony Number Six in F Major” may sound pretty fancy and get a few raised eyebrows from less musically knowledgeable acquaintances,  but it’s really not as impressive as they think. Just follow up its proper name and say “It’s the one that plays in Fantasia with the Cherubs and Pegasuses (Pegasi?)”. Ah yes, they know which one you’re talking about, and wasn’t that movie just the best thing. Grandpa remembers when it came out, back in his day when movies were quality, not like today…

blog-picsPerhaps now, your family will speak a little more quietly and try to hear the mellifluous sound of Beethoven. But wait! Your irritating Music Hipster Cousin, Eddie, isn’t impressed. Why would you bother playing such a dull, ‘mainstream’ symphony? He prefers Symphony No. 7, if he listens to Beethoven at all. He likes Rachmaninov and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Well, enjoy the pleasure of one-upping Hipster Cousin Eddie by giving out interesting facts about the symphony. Inform him that this piece was specifically chosen by you to convey proper feelings for Thanksgiving. It was inspired by Beethoven’s own visits to the idyllic Black Forest of Southern Germany, and each movement is meant to represent a part of going there that he loved most.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Peasant Dance

The First Movement, energetic and hopeful, represents the joy of arriving in the country. The Second conveys the calm serenity of sitting by a babbling brook and listening to the bird songs in the forest. The Third Movement is a jolly country dance. Fourth Movement, a frightening thunder storm! The Fifth and final Movement meanwhile, is a moving and jubilant song of thanks meant to be played by shepherds.

But that’s not all! There is other interesting information. For instance, that the symphony was composed just as Beethoven’s hearing loss was really setting in, and that some speculate that its serene beauty was meant to symbolize his final acceptance of this terrible burden. You can also inform them that this version is being conducted by Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. If you really want to lay it on thick, you can say something like “The tempo of the first movement is a little quick for my taste, but Karajan’s direction of Beethoven is too lush and rich to sacrifice for such a quibble.”

Of course, this is all a pleasant little fiction: As though the family is going to take a single breath from the moment someone mentions the Presidential Election to the time when they leave, possibly dragged away with new permanent rifts in the family. But, never mind that. You can still listen to Beethoven’s grand musical painting of his love for the countryside. And maybe, even if everyone else is getting bothered by political opinion, you can just sit on the couch, daydreaming about the Black Forest and all of the simple things that make life beautiful. So, forget about the politics and gossip. Instead, you can listen to the Shepherd’s Song and surely remember the real reason everyone is there today: Thanksgiving.

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Der schöne Schwarzwald (The beautiful Black Forest)

‘But, Opera Singers are Ugly…?’

blog-picsA while back, I taught a Music Appreciation class to a few High Schoolers. I worked up from the Medieval Era all year, waiting with bated breath for the Romantic Operatic Era, my favorite, to come along. Finally, it did, and I was so excited. I put together a program all about it, complete with snippets of music, laboriously corrected librettos, composer information and more. But my students, unsurprisingly,  didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. They were a great class, but were quite prejudiced against anything over 50 years old. As I began to explain the differences between fachs, I noticed one student who was giving me the most bored and exasperated expression. I asked him what was troubling him, and he told me that he couldn’t understand how I could make such a fuss over overweight, ugly, pompous Europeans.

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Fat and ugly? Maria Callas is not impressed.

I could almost imagine Maria Callas laughing in coloratura at him.

This is definitely one of the shallowest images of opera society likes to put forward, and one I had wrongly assumed was universally known to be ridiculous. We’ve all seen the caricature: The enormous woman dressed in an equally enormous and gaudy viking costume shrieking histrionically from the stage while everyone hides under their seats from the destructive sound waves.

When my student told me his belief on the subject of opera singers, I must confess that after a small pause, I burst out laughing. Quite loudly. The whole class was befuddled. I informed them that the next day, I would cure them of this belief once and for all. And that evening, I easily put together a little collage of the world famous opera singers who showed this stereotype up for the myth that it is…

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Somehow, ugly doesn’t seem quite the right description…

Their faces were priceless. With all of the “Whoa!” and “What??” reactions, I’m fairly sure a few of them would have been interested in purchasing Jonas Kaufmann and Elīna Garanča posters for their wall, had I been offering them for sale.

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Elegant and sassy

This was also an excellent opportunity to correct their ridiculously shallow “fat = ugly” mindset. Because even the more full-sized opera singers are every bit as gorgeous as their thinner coworkers. See Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti on the right for reference.

But there’s always a story behind a stereotype, right? So where did it come from? Indeed, the famous helmet and braids have ground in reality. Many Wagnerian productions in the 19th and early 20th century used these as a visual cue to let the audience know “They’re vikings. See, they have helmets”. Nowadays, however, the stage directors have ditched the gimmicky outfits and use costumes which tend more toward the serious nature of the operas.

There is also definite truth in opera singers often being on the bigger side. Many singers, especially in the spinto and dramatic fachs must have bit of girth to support the enormous sound they produce. Remember, opera doesn’t use microphones. Like, ever. And when’s the last time you heard someone Kristin Chenoweth’s size hit a full voiced, fortissimo C6 over a 90 piece orchestra, with no mic in a building that seats 3,000 people ? Probably never. So while plenty might poke fun at the “tubby” soprano playing a dainty ingenue, it’s the soprano who’ll have the last laugh as she basks in the flowers, money and love flung at her by an adoring public.

Opera fans, while highly judgmental in other areas, have to be one of the least judgmental crowds when it comes to physical appearance. They don’t care if you are fat, skinny, black, white, Asian, pretty, or ugly. If you sing well, you are their one true god.

However, as witnessed by the pictures above, being drop dead gorgeous probably helps…