Made you look.
And now for something completely different.
While I’ll touch briefly on the song title found in this post, today’s thought centers on music appreciation. Had I led with the title: Music Appreciation – Listen to What the Flower People Say, I doubt many would have read this far. Today, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the music of your life.
Most people have settled on their music style . . . you’ll often hear “she’s country western” or “he’s a rocker.” My style may be difficult to fit into a category. I was exposed to a variety of music when the pace of change in popular music became exponential. The radio airwaves competed for attention with music ranging from the Beatles and the sidewalk surfing tunes of the ’60s to Broadway musicals to southern Gospel, hard rock and disco – all within my educational experience of basic classical training in piano and voice. I was also influenced by my fascination with late night talk radio. I always dreamed of hosting my own talk show. On KMOX, the powerful 50,000 watt Voice of St. Louis, John McCormick, (“The Man Who Walks and Talks at Midnight”) interspersed his news stories with the classics of the American song book including the artists Bennett, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Cole, Horn, and others. If you looked at my “Favorite Stations” list on Pandora (the internet radio service) you’d find reserved buttons for Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Randy Travis (country western), Symphony classics, Gilbert and Sullivan, Alison Kraus (blue grass), romantic opera, southern gospel, Opera Babes, Sarah Brightman & Andre Bocelli, James Taylor (folk), Peter White (light jazz), The Bee Gees (sorry) and Mel Torme (vocal jazz). When at the computer I select from the list to accompany the task at hand. As of now, Alison Krauss gets top billing with a Mel Torme encore.
Music can appeal to us on several levels. First, at the intellectual level the appeal is driven by the message of the song. Sometimes the lyrics carry the day . . . the melody is a convenient conveyance – an afterthought. The poetry is the music. It’s like finding the perfect greeting card that says just what you want to communicate.
As example, a genre that may communicate at an intellectual level, although rarely thought of as such, is classic country western. The category is known in part for its clever song titles that say so much. You are drawn to the song before you even hear the tune: “Next Time You Swing that Skillet (My Face Ain’t Gonna Be There)”, “I Went Back to My Fourth Wife for the Third Time and Gave Her a Second Chance to Make a First Class Fool Out of Me”, “We Used to Kiss on the Lips But It’s All Over Now” and “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like Having You Here.” The list goes on as it may take a good number of similar titles to total up to something actually intellectual but the poetry of the lyric is a powerful part of the musical experience.
On another level, the passion and interpretation of a musical idea by the writer or the artist can deliver inspiration in the notes alone – beyond the lyrics. There’s the stirring music of an Italian opera where, although the words are “Greek” to me, the artist conveys significant meaning and emotion through his or her interpretation which proves again that music is a universal language.
An example is found in Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot”. This aria is one of the most famous tenor solos in all of opera and includes notes at the top of the range of opera tenors. I am reminded in watching the following video of an earlier interview with Pavarotti in which he described opera singing as “controlled yelling”.
The opera is set in Peking and Turandot is the cold-blooded yet beautiful princess who has many suitors. She has established a law that if a suitor cannot correctly answer the three riddles she poses – his head will be cut off. Her attractiveness must be overwhelming to risk such an outcome. Calaf (the role played by Pavarotti) has successfully answered the three riddles and yet Turandot balks at keeping her end of the bargain to marry the successful suitor. Calaf, even knowing he has won, now poses a riddle of his own. She must tell him his name by morning and if she can – he will agree to die. It speaks of his love for her that having already won he would risk this measure to demonstrate his devotion and win her heart with his daring. The princess decrees none of her subjects may sleep until his name is discovered. If they fail, all will be killed. Frankly, I would move on to the next woman, but this is opera.
‘That all must stay awake’ is the opening line . . . “Nessun dorma” (None shall sleep) and Calaf, now alone in the garden, sings this aria which builds to the glorious declaration: “Vanish, O night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win! (Vincero, Vincero, Vincero!)”
I never tire of this piece and have included a video showing my favorite Pavarotti version. While there are clearer video recordings, I love his expressions and especially the moments on his face as he concludes the song. Many have attempted this popular tenor solo but Pavarotti’s is widely regarded as a masterpiece for both his vocal performance as well as his operatic interpretation of the piece. I hope you enjoy this work of art.
Click the play button for Pavrotti’s performance of Nessun Dorma from the Three Tenors Concert. (I had trouble getting sound/video to synch on iPad but was OK on laptop.)
On yet another level, there are songs where the message of the lyrics and the language of the music come together at a meaningful time to make a song memorable…. to make it “your song” or “our song.”
In closing, here’s a song that meets this category for me. You, most likely, have not heard of this obscure choral piece I learned during my time in a college a capella choir. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term “a capella” this clip from the Andy Griffith Show may enlighten you.)
For over 80 years my college choir has enjoyed a reputation of delivering the finest in a capella choral music. In addition, it’s a family affair for us. My parents met in this choir and a generation later, my wife and I sang with the choir as well. The repertoire is always challenging – these were difficult pieces to master.
My favorite song among many from which to choose was entitled “Ye Shall Go Out With Joy” by Randall Thompson. (Not to be confused with the sing-songy contemporary interpretation of scripture often listed as “You Shall Go Out With Joy.”) Thompson’s number was a favorite then and continues so. The song speaks to me on three levels.
First, the intellectual level as the text is lifted directly from Isaiah 55:12. Others have noted the similar themes of the scripture found at Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” Anytime a song speaks directly from the scriptures — you’re on solid ground. It is a marvelous feat of composition to work with such elaborate text and turn out a masterful work.
Another level is the skillful way in which the composer links the music with the text. It is the onomatopoeia of music where the sound itself matches and enhances the message of the text. I’m sure there’s a musical term for it. As you listen to the text from Isaiah and the promise of joy you are surrounded by waving trees of the fields (your encouragers), the trumpets of celebration, the peeling bells of the tower and the ground swell of the crowd. All of this is accomplished using only the instrument of gifted voices. The dissonance which adds to the majesty of this piece makes it very difficult to perform.
Our small church choir attempted this number for a spring concert. The director put it on the program as a favor to me as it was far more difficult than the anthems the church choir usually sang. It turned out to be more of an audience participation piece as the congregation was willing us through to the finish as it must have sounded as if we needed all the help we could get.
The third level to which it speaks is of a personal nature. This was the song most often on my lips and in my mind during the darkest days of my cancer ordeal at the Cleveland Clinic. For seven weeks I was reduced to a lump on the bed as they pumped me full of high dose chemotherapy during an experimental bone marrow harvest protocol. In those times of despair and darkness it was this song that spoke encouragement to me for the coming days of hope and the promise to be reunited with my family and friends. It became my song.
Click on the following link to hear the choir sing this selection. You’ll first be taken to another page in the blog and once there click on the link again and allow the file to load a player. It takes about five seconds for the sound to begin once the player appears. (Let me know if you have trouble.)
Music is everywhere. While I have spoken to it’s better nature – music can also be abused as when poor selections are cranked up in a restaurant for the sole purpose of turning tables. In the din we risk losing the good due to the abundance of the mediocre. Listen for the levels from which a song speaks to you. Try to hear the composer and listen for the artist’s interpretation. Not everything is good – much lacks musical depth, many lack intellectual significance (ie. The Next Time You Swing that Skillet) but if you listen with a discerning ear you will be rewarded with gems to brighten your spirits.
Enjoy the music of the spheres.