Classical KING FM host Lisa Bergman and I just had the most wonderful conversation about the power of music. I’m sure you know what I mean, as it’s universal, and it’s one of the aspects of music that I think we all love. Having spent our lifetimes directly involved in music, we had countless stories to share with each other about music and first loves, pieces that remind us of those now gone, and remembering the magic of hearing something beautiful for the first time. What a gift we can all share with music, and for us, especially in classical music, which has so much depth and breadth and power.
I remember my first glimmers of romance, perhaps in middle school, when I just started to notice the girls in the horn section of my orchestra. There were stirrings of something that had me seeing them in a new way, and the soundtrack was classical music! 😉 To this day I think of one of my favorite horn section friends when I hear a piece we were playing together, and she had the big solo. Quite literally we were making beautiful music together, though at that age it meant literally that. But that was more than enough at the time!
At the time I probably thought it so fitting that Howard Hanson’s Symphony #2 was called “The Romantic”. Even though the video above is from decades after my experience, t’s a puppy love that is fun to remember, and the music brings it all back every time I hear it. I love my wife of 32 years, and always will, but this music is such a nice memory of a time and a frame of mind that is long gone.
Is there a piece that does that for you? Happy? Sad? Romantic? What is your memory and the music that triggers it? I’d love to share it here, and will share just your first name, or call you “anonymous” if you prefer! Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I call this series “Stunningly Powerful Pieces You May Not Know But That Bryan Lowe Would Love For You to Hear at Least Once in Your Lifetime”. That’s a big promise, done a little tongue in cheek, but if you are ready for a bit of an adventure, I’ll do my best to deliver. Part one featured Ravel’s masterpiece, Concerto for the Left Hand, while part two explored Cunning Little Vixen by Janacek. (link) –
I knew the first two pieces wouldn’t be enjoyed by absolutely everyone, as they both overflow with intensity and cutting edge genius for their day. Today my “must hear” work will suit just about everyone when played by at least once of the instruments below. It’s Mysterious Barricades by Couperin. Compared to the previous works I’ve shared it sounds simple, yet there is something about it that I find so beautiful as well as universal and timeless.
Les Barricades Mystérieuses, what we callThe Mysterious Barricades, was composed in 1717 for the harpsichord by François Couperin as the fifth piece in the second book of works by the composer. There’s a lot of music there, but only harpsichordists can name any of the others in the collection. THIS is the piece that has been adapted for virtually every instrument you can think of short of Theremin, and that instrument may next!
Let’s get right to it with a performance for harpsichord, as Couperin intended. Then we will go pretty far afield with other performances.
It’s really worth remembering that music notation, how the composer leaves his/her intentions on a sheet of paper, can be very imprecise. It’s shocking sometimes to hear just how different performances of a given piece can be. The woman above gives me a great sense of the mystery we see in the title, while the rapid pace and lack of rhythmic lilt below, I guess you could say, reminds me more of something along the lines of a butterfly or even a bee flying from flower to flower across a field. The energy is totally different.
I was talking with one of our own music experts, Christophe Chagnard, about this, and he reminded me that much of the music from this time was written as dance music, which means that Couperin would not have taken so many liberties with the tempo of the piece. I’d also guess that he wouldn’t try to race through it!
What of the name of the piece itself? Mysterious Barricades. What does that even mean? There is no consensus on this, but the ideas for Couperin’s intentions are fascinating in their own right. Some say it eludes to a common way of referring to women’s eyelashes among the Salonnière of the 17th century. I can imagine that in this next performance. Elegant dances, fluttering eyelashes and looks of near forbidden longing. Or is it just me? 😉 Some even say it is inspired by women’s chastity belts, so…
Or does the name refer to:
Impeded communication between people?
The barricade between past and present and future?
The unknown jump from life to death?
I’ll let you decide for yourself, though I’d love for any of these to be “true”. We will most likely never know.
Let’s hear a few more performances. I’ll turn next to the guitar, and there are a LOT of performances to be found along those lines. Banjo, even. I’m trying to control myself on how many verisons I share, but I simply have to share this link, as I love the enthusiasm this performer has for the piece. Then there is this guitarists lovely performance at Versailles.
I’ve always been a sucker for marimbas and vibraphones, so let’s hear one of those performing this beautiful piece.
So how to end this look at one of my favorite pieces? I found performances for accordion, cello ensembles and on and on. Check them out on YouTube. But I’ve decided to close with an animated visualization of the music itself, one that is suggestive if not literally accurate. Does this approach help you figure out what the title means to you?
So which is YOUR favorite? Let me know below. More favorites to come.
I call this series “Stunningly Powerful Pieces You May Not Know But That Bryan Lowe Would Love For You to Hear at Least Once in Your Lifetime”. That’s a big promise, done a little tongue in cheek, but if you are ready for a bit of an adventure, I’ll do my best to deliver. Part one featured Ravel’s masterpiece, Concerto for the Left Hand. (link)
This time I tackle Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, an opera about a cartoon fox, and about love and loss. More on that in a moment. A reminder that this series tackles pieces I consider stunningly beautiful, but somewhat challenging for some listeners. While that is the perfect pairing for me, your mileage, as they say, may vary. I really hope, though, that you find something that touches your life as much as these pieces have impacted mine.
Leos Janacek. This is a composer that may not be familiar to you if you haven’t done a dive into the deep end of the classical music pool. He’s written some stunning masterpieces, but let’s just say my attorney wife loves to have KING FM on while she works, but she would run to turn off the radio with much that Janacek wrote. His music can be the deep end of the pool. But that end is best end for excitement, in swimming and in music. Let’s not float lazily in the shallow end for this work.
Many consider Janacek the greatest Czech composer of the 20th century. While he started composing in a traditional manner for his day, he quickly set off on his own pathway, inspired by native folk melodies and by the cadence of the Czech language itself. Setting aside the technical aspects of what that means, just know his music can give the effect of spurts and stops and starts… just like language. But within his music I feel he was a master of stunningly beautiful melodies… with a twist and a stumble now and then. Life and language, and Janacek’s music, can be like that.
Janacek’s housekeeper was reading a serialized comic about a fox in the local paper, enjoying it a great deal, and said something about “wouldn’t this make a great opera?!” Well, the rest is history. It’s important to note that there is a significant portion of Janacek’s music inspired by his undying and unrequited love for a much younger married woman, Kamila. At this point, Janacek is in his 70’s, and knows their love is not to be. You can feel that in his telling of the story of a “vixen”, the name for a female fox.
As you listen think of an unbelievably strong love in the hands of a man who sees his life coming to a close, with a sense of both loss and hope. And remember those Czech language patterns amidst the beautiful melodies. I must also add… this singer is FABULOUS! What a voice.
I find that music so powerful and filled with a love of life, especially in that final scene. After Janacek heard the dress rehearsal of that final scene in the first production, he said: ”This they have to play for me at my funeral.” And they did.
Let’s call this series “Stunningly Powerful Pieces You May Not Know But That Bryan Lowe Feels You Must Hear at Least Once in Your Lifetime”. That’s a big promise, done a bit tongue in cheek, but if you are ready for a bit of an adventure, I’ll do my best to deliver. This series won’t be an easy stroll for those who like their classical music to be “pretty and that is that”. There’s a time and a place for that line of thinking, in fact, a lot of times in our lives “pretty” is the ideal in classical music. But, this is a step in a different direction. I consider these pieces stunningly beautiful, and challenging. The perfect pairing for me. I hope you find something in these pieces, too.
Let’s dive in and get things going this time with Ravel‘s Concerto for the Left Hand.
Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War One, just as he was beginning his career as a concert pianist. In an effort to rebuild his life and career after his injuries, he commissioned several composers to write concertos that used just the left hand. It’s not a small order, reducing the huge capabilities of a concert grand to a single arm, and the stories say Wittengenstein wasn’t impressed by several of the efforts, including Ravel’s. Regardless, many consider this piece to be one of the great works of classical music. I certainly do. It’s the story of a challenge overcome, of a Phoenix rising from ashes, a journey clearly heard within the music itself.
As a side note, M.A.S.H., that classic TV series of a few decades back, featured an episode revolving around the story and the piece. A young soldier is patched up pretty well by the medics, but he seems devastated. Then, the medics learn he was a concert pianist. That’s something especially understandable for the classical music loving Major Winchester. He then remembers this piece by Ravel. He finds hope. Honestly, while I’d heard the piece before that and enjoyed it, it was this TV episode that really opened my eyes and ears to the power of the piece. A great M.A.S.H. episode and music of Ravel at its center. Perfection! I’ll add that this piece is in clear contention for my favorite piece of music of all time, and I love a LOT of music!
Watch this video, and remember as the music begins, the darkness of a concert pianist losing an arm to the pointlessness of war, then rediscovering himself and his love of music, through this piece. You’ll hear it, even if Wittgenstein himself, did not.
For extra credit listening, we have two performances of Wittgenstein himself performing the work. Honestly, there are better pianists you can hear online, but we owe a debt of gratitude and admiration to the man for his sacrifice and for making this piece possible through his commission.
A video with just the piano highlights featuring Wittengenstein. It is silent for the first few seconds.
Next, a complete performance broken down into two videos, but no video of the man himself.
Well, I can’t control myself when it comes to this piece, so I’ll add one more video. Pianist Leon Fleisher experienced his own health issues that made his right arm useless due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. Once again, Ravel, and Wittgenstein came to the rescue as Fleisher resumed his career with repertoire for the left hand.