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)

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)

Opera Highlight: Carmen

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Welcome to my first opera post! As my favorite thing in the world, opera is going to get plenty of attention from me on Mind Vitamins. Some posts, like this one, will introduce plot and history. Others will talk about the music, characters or story quality and also introduce the reader to some of the greatest singers and recordings of operas, both modern and vintage. I will be making recommendations on recordings that you can either buy or listen to on Youtube for free, so you can confidently start on the road to operatic classiness!

For my first opera post, I’ve decided to back to my beginning: Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Now, to be completely truthful, La Boheme was my real operatic beginning, but Carmen was the first recording I ever owned myself. This little gem, which I giddily received for Christmas at age 13, opened wide the floodgates to a whole universe of diverse musical beauty… and also to a whole universe of people rolling their eyes at me. Oh well.

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My very first opera recording. Oh, the nostalgia.

Carmen is one of the most well known and frequently performed operas of all time. Even if you have never willingly submitted yourself to any operatic experience, you probably know at least one tune in it by heart. Snippets from the Habanera and Toreador Song are heard frequently in television and film. In the tradition of French Opera, it’s impossible to call any moment of this work unpleasant, as the fiery and exotic music vividly illustrates the story’s violence, jealousy, love, hatred, and betrayal.

The drama centers around Don José, a corporal in the Spanish military. He meets Carmen, a wickedly beautiful and independent gypsy girl who seduces the naive José , only to cast him lightly aside when she tires of him and his boring soldier’s ways. But José is not so changing, and his violent and jealous nature prove to be the doom of the fatally ill-matched couple. But even with the great plot and music, there is usually icing on this operatic cake in the form of dancing, sword fights and fabulous costumes.

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Achieved immortality, but had to die to do it.

The history of the opera is a bit sad. The composer, Georges Bizet, worked tirelessly for month after month on his beloved Carmen. He knew it would be his masterpiece and legacy. But when the devoted artist finally premiered his work in 1875, it was utterly rejected by the public. Disgusted by the onstage violence and scandalized by Carmen’s voluptuous character, the people of Paris deemed the opera vulgar and uninspired. Bizet’s greatest work was a box office bomb. Rumor had it that tickets to the performances were being given away in a desperate last-ditch effort to produce popularity.

In the middle of this dismal fiasco, poor Bizet suddenly died. Worn out by struggle with illness, overwork on his recent project, and some like to say a crushed heart and soul, Bizet had a fatal heart attack at only 36 years old.

All those people who had insulted him in the gazettes must have felt pretty darn sheepish as they now had to inform the world of his premature death. Paris was appalled. Faced with the fact that this talented man would never compose again, and probably affected with a kind of Dead Artist Fever, the fickle public apparently rethought its stance on Carmen and gave it a another chance. It was performed very successfully, and when it was finally brought to America in 1884, it became little less than a smash hit. It surged to the top of nearly every country’s most performed list and has remained there ever since.

And so, Carmen became immortal and its music has been beloved by opera fans and haters alike for over a century. Nowadays, many of the Opera Hipsters (yes, there are Opera Hipsters) like to pooh pooh Carmen because of its popularity and admitted overuse. But by doing so, they really do injustice an opera with beautifully crafted music, lyrics and storyline that deserves a spot with some of the greatest operas as well as the most fun.

(If you would like to listen to Carmen, I would recommend this ravishing recording  with Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras. If you would like to watch Carmen, this is a thoroughly decent version, although all of the really excellent video recordings of this opera have to be bought. I’ll talk about the best video recordings another time!)

 

Overture to Mind Vitamins

It would really be smashing if I were capable of composing a lovely piece of music to introduce you to all the themes and tunes of my little blog. Alas, I cannot, and must resort to a verbal rather than a musical overture.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to a cool musical overture while reading a less cool verbal overture…

There you go, with Donizetti’s fabulous music in your ears, perhaps my introduction will seem less boring. Rather like  listening to the James Bond theme while folding a rather large basket of socks.

Anyway, welcome to Mind Vitamins! I am very excited to share all the tidbits of culture that I collect on this marvelous tool called the internet. Book recommendations, musical suggestions, literary and film discussions, art dissections, and more, all packed into small, easily consumed mental supplements for the Reader forced to live on the nutritionally lax mental diet of modern culture.

So, do read on. There will be plenty of topics on the classiest of subjects. All of them specially designed to boost your mental sophistication. So follow me and become that weird, nerdy friend who everyone laughs at a little but who everyone turns to when they want to know what that piece of classical music from Sherlock was or are wondering who the heck Captain Ahab is and why do they keep talking about him in Star Trek: First Contact. You have no idea of the power you hold being that friend… I mean, eh, it’s always nice to help people. Yes, indeed.

So toodle-pip for now, and enjoy the centuries, nay, millennia of cultural goodies that I will present to you shortly.