“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 even 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”
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.” If you enjoy watching this version, visit Malinowski's YouTube Channel, where it’s not difficult to become a fan of his animated work.
I have always enjoyed following printed musical scores while listening to music. Knowing what’s in a score brings music to life. I can see individual notes and voices as they weave together, generating music’s magic. Following a printed score helps me understand how a piece of music is organized and grasp the musical narrative.
Malinowski’s animated scores serve the same purpose — and they do it with much more power and excitement than printed scores. His videos allow me to see what I am hearing and anticipate what is coming. The persistent forward motion of beautiful shapes and colors in Malinowski's videos has forever changed how I hear music. Malinowski helps me understand what it must be like to have some form of synesthesia, a condition for which I would seek no cure. If synesthesia would cause music to conjure up colors in the manner of a Malinowski video, I would welcome the diagnosis.
Malinowski published his first YouTube video — a recording of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor — in December 2005, and I am posting this blog in celebration of the tenth anniversary of that event.
Although Malinowski has posted over 365 videos in the last ten years, that first video has remained his most popular, receiving over 25 million views on YouTube. (That's right, 25 million!) Malinowski recently told me via email that his first video of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was “crude and the recording was poor.” He recorded the music for that video on a synthetic pipe organ and decided to celebrate its anniversary with the creation of a new version. His first choice for the new recording was organist Hans-André Stamm, and Malinowski was thrilled when Stamm agreed to collaborate.
Here's how Malinowski described his newest version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (The video he is describing is embedded below. The toccata begins at 0:05 and the fugue begins at 2:26.)
“Since 2005, I've been developing tools and techniques for visualizing music, but for this video, I decided to keep it relatively simple (as a tip of the hat to the simple original video) and not distract from Stamm's performance: I use balls for the fast-moving parts of the toccata, rectangles for the toccata chords, and octagons for the fugue. The three-note motif that is the seed of the piece is highlighted in red."
Thank you, Stephen Malinowski! Thank you for bringing so much pleasure to those of us who love classical music and for introducing millions of people to classical music who might never have listened to it without you.
Performed by Hans-André Stamm on the Weyland organ in the Catholic parish church
Heilig Kreuz in Köln-Weidenpesch Cologne (Köln), ca. 1992.
As an encore, I invite everyone to follow the links below for a few of my favorite videos from Malinowski's Music Animation Machine. Enjoy!
Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Second Movement
Debussy, Syrinx (for solo flute)
Satie, Gymnopédie No. 1
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part 1
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part 2
Music history — like political and economic history — also has its earth-shattering moments, the moments when everything changes. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) changed European music forever, as did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865). All three of those works shook the foundations of music and made it difficult for composers to continue using the traditional "rules" of composition that had preceded them. Another such moment in music history came on May 29, 1913, when The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
The first performance of The Rite of Spring caused such an uproar that most accounts of the audience’s reaction refered to it as a “riot.” Even though the ballet’s unusual choreography may have had as much to do with causing a commotion as the music, we cannot avoid describing The Rite of Spring as one of the most significant and influential pieces of music ever composed.
The Rite of Spring was the third ballet by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and entrepreneur, created the Ballet Russes in 1909 when he brought Russian ballet dancers to Paris. Employing the finest dancers in the world, Diaghilev gained much fame combining music, scenery, costumes, acting, and drama into what Richard Wagner had once described as “Artwork of the Future.”
During the first season of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev produced performances of classic ballets with music by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the second season, however, Diaghilev scheduled performances with new music. The first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with new music was The Firebird by Stravinsky. At the time, Stravinsky was an unknown Russian composer, a former pupil of the great Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Firebird, which premiered in June 1910, became a hit, leading Diaghilev to commission another ballet from Stravinsky. That ballet, titled Petrushka, made Stravinsky an international star and Diaghilev asked Stravinsky for a third ballet — The Rite of Spring. At its premiere the audience was full of aristocrats and celebrities, and Paris was primed for a major social event. Little did the audience know they were about to make history by witnessing an event that would scandalize Paris and revolutionize the language of music.
Pablo Picasso's sketch of Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring paints a picture of a primitive and pagan world, a version of primeval human beings paying tribute to nature with rituals related to spring. During the ballet, a young virgin is selected for sacrifice and then dances herself to death.
Parisian painters had already been influenced by primitive art and had created a new artistic style known as Fauvism. “Fauvists” (or “Brutes”) painted with wild brush strikes and jarring colors. The Rite of Spring might be described in the same terms. The combination of modernist music and dancing went far beyond what some members of the audience at the premier performance were willing to accept.
Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, attended the premier and later describe the chaos in his book Music After the War.
“A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium. I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”
In addition to Van Vecthen’s description, other well-known stories from that evening illustrate the controversial nature of the ballet.
- A woman who was enjoying the performance stood up and spat in the face of a man who didn't like the music.
- Another woman who was also enjoying the performance was seated in a theater box . When a boobird in the box next to her got on her nerves she reached into his box and slapped his face. Her escort then challenged the boobird to a duel.
- The Princesse de Pourtalès walked out of the theater exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone dared to make a fool of me!”
- The ambassador from Austria sneered and laughed out loud.
- Music critic André Capu screamed that the music was a fraud.
- Composer and music critic Alexis Roland-Manuel loudly defended the music, causing a protestor to tear the collar from his shirt.
- Police came to the theater in large numbers and arrested over 40 people.
Byron Hollinshead has edited a pair of books titled I Wish I'd Been There in which distinguished historians answer the question, “What scene or incident in history would you most liked to have witnessed? Although I can think of several historical events I would like to have witnessed, the premier performance of The Rite of Spring would be near the top of my list.
If I had been at that performance, I would have wanted to attend as neutral observer, someone who was not taking sides. I would have wanted to watch that performance knowing what we know over 100 years later, fully cognizant of how much Stravinsky’s music was changing everything that came after. I wish I'd been there to see what it looks like when the world is shaken to its core and everything begins moving in a different direction.
Music Outline for The Rite of Spring (LeSacre du Pintemps)
The two animated scores embedded below are among the best I have seen. The animations come from Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal at Music Animation Machine. I find their work on The Rite of Spring riveting and thrilling. NPR called them "mind blowing."
Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.
Part One: Adoration of the Earth
0:06 | 1. Introduction
3:18 | 2. Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescents): The celebration of spring begins in the hills. Pipers play music and young men tell fortunes.
6:26 | 3. Game of the Abduction: An old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and begins to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file and begin the spring dance.
7:48 | 4. Spring Rounds: The young girls dance the “Spring Rounds.”
11:22 | 5. Games of the Rival Tribes: The people divide into two groups opposing each other and begin the “Games of the Rival Tribes.”
13:08 | 6. Entrance of the Wise Man: The holy procession enters with the wise elders led by the Wise Man.
13:48 | 7. The Wise Man: The Wise Man interrupts the spring games and the people tremble as the he blesses the earth.
14:09 | 8. Dance to the Earth: The people dance passionately and become one with the earth.
Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.
Part Two: The Sacrifice
0:15 | 9. Introduction
4:54 | 10. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents: At night, the adolescent girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.
8:10 | 11. Glorification of the Chosen One: One of the girls — a virgin — is selected as the Chosen One after being twice caught in a perpetual circle. The adolescent girls honor her with a marital dance.
9:36 | 12. Evocation of the Ancestors: The adolescent girls invoke their ancestors in a brief dance.
10:30 | 13. Ritual of the Ancestors: The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.
14:06 | 14. Ritual Dance of the Chosen One: The Chosen One performs a sacrificial dance and dances herself to death in the presence of the old wise men.
– Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most accessible composers in music history, and if you don’t enjoy listening to his music, you may never enjoy anything from the classical repertoire.
Early in Debussy’s career his music was labeled “Impressionist," a term that had previously been applied to a style of painting associated with artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The term came from the title of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (shown below) and refers to paintings that use light and color to create a soft-focus image of a scene rather than a detailed representation. By that definition, it's easy to see why some people used the term to describe Debussy's music.
Debussy disliked the music of most other composers and criticized the work of Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. (He did, however, seem to like Bach.) This disdain for the music of others can be heard in the way Debussy rejected the musical traditions of past masters and created a whole new musical language. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, he provided listeners with music unlike anything ever heard before. He was an artistic revolutionary and, for that reason alone, ranks as one of the most significant composers of the last century.
The best way to describe Debussy’s music is to take the following ingredients and mix them together. When finished you will have what amounted to a new type of music for the twentieth century.
- He was unconcerned with the expectations of his audience, and created a musical language that divorced itself from the long-standing German traditions. He famously wrote: “I want my music to be as relevant to the twentieth century as the airplane.”
- His music was largely programmatic, although he did not try to paint a picture or tell a story with his music as much as he tried to evoke a mood.
- The sounds of his native language can be heard in his compositions. Debussy was French, and — like the language he spoke — his music was generally free of sharp accents and harsh consonants.
- His music emphasized “color” through his creative use of musical timbre. He used instruments either by themselves or in unusual groupings to create sounds that had never been heard in an orchestra.
- His music provided unorthodox harmonies and melodic lines. Generally unconcerned with whether his themes were set in a major or minor key, Debussy employed harmonies designed to evoke a certain mood, using whole tone scales (play C – D – E – F# – G#– A# – C on a piano), pentatonic scales (play the black keys on a piano), and chromatic scales (listen to the flute at the beginning of The Afternoon of a Faun on the video embedded below).
As for my statement above that unlike many other composers Debussy's music can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, let me finish by quoting Debussy on that very subject:
"Love of art does not depend on explanations, or on experience as in the case of those who say ‘I need to hear that several times.’ Utter rubbish! When we really listen to music, we hear immediately what we need to hear."
Debussy, “Claire de lune” from Suite bergamasque (1905)
graphic score by Music Animation Machine
Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894)
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on sonataform.blogspot.com)
Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)
I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.