An astute reader recently asked me whether I’d had a particular song in mind for the “Invocation” Seraphina plays at Prince Rufus’s funeral. I did, in fact: there’s a moment late in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 where a flute plays a plaintive melody, echoed by French horn.
If you’re not familiar with Shostakovich’s Fifth, here’s a decent interpretation by our old friend Lenny Bernstein:
If you’re the impatient sort, the flute/French horn duet is at about 14:00. That said, I really think you should listen to everything that comes before it, rather than skipping ahead. It’s so much more beautiful if you’ve
suffered through endured fully experienced the music that came before. It’s actually quite an easy listen for a 20th century composer. I almost wonder, as I’m listening again (for the billionth time in the last two weeks) whether someone like John Williams didn’t find influences and inspirations here for the Star Wars soundtrack. It’s that level of listenable, is all I’m saying, full of grandeur and drama, always in motion. Also, Lenny is fun to watch. He’s got kind of a Peter Falk thing going on sometimes, which amuses me.
This symphony, along with Brahms’s 4th, was my go-to music for writing when I was a teenager. I would sit on the couch with headphones on and scrawl terrible, terrible fantasy novels in spiral notebooks. I hardly dare describe how terrible they were, but the music that fuelled them was not. One thing I love about this piece is that it has a bit of everything: anguish, hope, terror, beauty. There’s a diabolical march at 10:54 that gives me chills. I had better stop enumerating all my chills right there; there’s really no point counting. I’ve got chills enough for an influenza epidemic.
Also worth knowing is the history of this piece. It gets its own Wikipedia entry. The short version: Shostakovich fell from political grace – a dangerous thing to do in Stalin’s USSR – and this symphony is his attempt to give the Party the kind of inspirational, uplifting,”classical heroism” they demanded.
Or is it? Did Shostakovich comply, or not? How do we know what a piece of orchestral music really “means”? Is meaning something the listener brings to music, or something the composer puts in it? What about Lenny, what’s his role? How much does the artist create for himself, and how much for others? It’s fascinating to me how many layers there are.
So my lovely Madrigalians gave a concert yesterday evening, and it went wonderfully well. Each member of the choir was “piece monger” – meaning chooser, conductor, and ultimate arbiter of taste – for one song. That meant we sang as many songs as there are members of the choir, which was a lot of music to learn!
Anyway, it occurs to me that I can give you a virtual concert right here, or nearly. None of these recordings are us, of course, but here’s what we sang, in order:
Belle, qui tiens ma vie (We began this piece with a recorder quartet)
Pastyme with goode companye (by Henry VIII, and featuring yours truly on tambourine) (no tambourine in this recording, alas)
Amour Ha Pouvoir Sur Les Dieux (I couldn’t find a sung version of this on YouTube, sorry)
Ach Lieb, ich tu dir klagen (I was piece monger for this song, which was great fun. I’m one of those power-hungry, bossy conductors, though, so maybe I shouldn’t conduct too often)
So ben me ch’a bon tempo (we didn’t have the big instrumental interlude in the middle)
Vita de la mia Vita (a modern madrigal!)
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (composed by a member of our choir, Lise Kreps; the lyrics are the A. E. Housman poem that inspired the Ursula LeGuin short story collection by the same name)
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie (this is the Leadbelly recording; the version we sang was arranged by our own Earle Peach)
After all that, if you can believe it, the audience asked for an encore. We hadn’t prepared one, but we managed to belt out Sing We and Chant It almost as if we knew what we were doing.
The Viola Organista! It’s like a harpsichord and a cello had a baby! Read this article about it, and be sure to listen to the performance as well. I’m loving this so hard. It sounds like a string quartet to me, playing Baroque-style without vibrato. Incredible.
In other news: I’ve been relaxing most arduously, playing Mass Effect 2, doing housework, attending to all the things that need attending (the dog, largely; she’s been ill, poor thing). I keep having ideas for fiction. I am jotting them down, then letting them float away, which feels like the height of luxury to me. I’ll get to them; there will be time.
I hope November is treating you gently, too.
We’re singing several good songs in choir this session, but my favourite by far is “Ach Lieb, ich tu dir klagen,” by Hans Leo Hassler. It’s Renaissance-tastic. Here’s the only YouTube recording I could find:
Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s in five parts. I usually sing alto, but since I’m technically a mezzo-soprano, I decided to sing the second soprano part this time (our conductor is very easy-going and doesn’t mind). I always think whichever part I’m singing is the most beautiful, but in this case I’m pretty sure it’s true. The second soprano line is something special.
German has a bad rep in some circles as a harsh-sounding language, but I don’t think it’s harsh. It’s super fun to sing. During one of our more melodic moments as second sopranos, we’re singing “die grossen Schmerzen mein,” which doesn’t look like it ought to be beautiful, but it is. It takes a lot of mouth-effort to pronounce correctly, but I like that in a language. I think it gives the song some additional timbre and nuance. The sound of the words, separate from their meaning, is an interesting and integral part of the whole.
Last weekend I did a reading at McGill Library in Burnaby, where my madrigal choir (plus an extra musical guest) very kindly agreed to sing, and where my friend Els very kindly agreed to take some pictures.
I started off reading excerpts from Seraphina and fielding questions from the crowd. And it was one of the biggest crowds I’ve had:
I talked a lot. It’s a well-known fact that I can go on and on:
The second half was devoted to our musical performances. The choir sang two Renaissance songs: “Belle Qui Tiens,” which is a pavane (like the pavano Seraphina dances with Kiggs); and “Mille Regretz” by Josquin Desprez, a goosebump-inducing piece of music which was an inspiration for the book itself.
Then we had some special instrumental demonstrations. Here’s Lise – my librarian friend who set this all up – demonstrating the wooden transverse Renaissance flute, just like Seraphina plays:
An intrepid recorder trio then played Praetorius’s “Bransle de la Torche”, which is one of my favourite Medieval dance tunes.
I even demonstrated the bransle, or bits of it. It’s really more of a line dance, but I’ve never been embarrassed about dancing with myself.
For the grand finale, Lise’s cousin Nathan gave us a demonstration on his amazing bass sackbut! That’s right, friends, the sackbut is a real thing. I didn’t make it up.
At the end of my visit, I received some tulips, a special bookmark, and this, a lovely piece of art from a talented young lady named Caitlin.
So that was last weekend. THIS weekend, I got to go to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, and attend the BC Book Awards Gala Dinner. No point keeping you in suspense: I didn’t win the award I was nominated for, alas. But I had a cultural experience most Canadians never get to have, a reception and dinner with my province’s Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor is, at a provincial level, what the Governor General is at the national: the official representative of the British Crown. I have never been anyplace so officially fancy in my life.
That’s the VIP reception, pictured above. My son was SO EXCITED to be part of it. He’s totally planning to brag to his friends that he was a VIP. I’m pretty sure this is not what his friends are going to imagine he means.
Then there was the award presentation and banquet, in the ballroom:
After the awards ceremony, we had a fancy dinner involving things like “White Asparagus Panna Cotta” (it was white! And gelatinous! ), and “Stinging Nettles & Fresh Goat Cheese Custard” (which didn’t sting, even a little). My son was far and away the youngest person present, and he got quite a bit of attention for being patient, well-behaved, and a good eater (even of the unusual foods, above). I may not have won the prize, but I did get a weekend that my whole family is going to remember for a very long time, and that is worth a lot.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be back someday.
Edited to add: Geez! I should tell you who DID win! It was Caroline Adderson, for her book Middle of Nowhere! I haven’t read it, but I’d better correct that. All the winners and nominees are listed here. What a writing culture we have here in BC!
My friend John told me about this recently, but it took me a while to work up the nerve to listen to it. It’s an interesting bit of experimental music. It’s also 45 minutes long, so don’t feel you have to sit through the whole thing. You get a pretty good idea of where it’s going just a few minutes in. I was astonished how distorted it was by about seven minutes, utterly unintelligible at twelve.
I’ve got it running in the background. Right now, it sounds like blurry chords.
It’s an interesting way of thinking about human voices, though. Even while speaking, our voices are made up of different frequencies. The room echoes back some frequencies more readily than others, and by the end of this piece that’s what you’re hearing, notes that were always present in his voice, selected by the properties of the room.
The notes are all there, even when we don’t perceive them.
It’s getting more and more drone-like. It reminds me of this harmonica I had as a kid that would make eerie mooing noises if one didn’t blow into it with enough force. I suspect we’re headed toward even the rhythm of speech disappearing.
In the comments of my Wall Song Query, astute commenter David mentioned some music I love that I hadn’t listened to in years: Les Baricades Mysterieuses by Couperin. How fortuitous! I was looking for an instrument of the week, and it may as well be the trusty harpsichord:
This piece is, in fact, the entire reason Seraphina plays keyboards at all. When I was very young I had a disastrous course of piano lessons, ending with my teacher telling my mother to stop wasting money on me. You know it’s bad when you can’t pay the teacher to teach. I still don’t like piano music to this day — with a few exceptions — but I like harpsichord, and this Couperin piece is the reason. When Seraphina says, “The timbre of [the harpsichord] is, to me, the musical equivalent of a warm bath” — that’s me, talking about this piece.
There are lots of renditions of this piece on YouTube, including some performed on guitar and (bleargh!) piano. I chose this one because I enjoyed watching this fellow play, he takes it at a humane but lively pace, and I wanted to point out the painting inside the instrument lid. Seraphina’s spinet (a related but differently oriented keyboard instrument) has kittens inside the lid. I love this stuff.
I have one more eccentric anecdote to relate about Les Barricades Mysterieuses. My sister and I used to love making mix tapes for a particular friend of ours. This was in ancient times, so we were often recording off vinyl. It was a point of pride with my sister to leave no blank space at the end of a tape, to have all the music fit perfectly (I would just let it cut off in the middle of a song, which drove her nuts). Anyway, we had just a minute or two of space at the end of our friend’s tape, and we were racking our brains trying to find a piece short enough to fit, when we lit upon this Couperin. Still, it was going to be close. We held our breaths as it recorded, and — miracle of miracles — it fit perfectly. My sister and I cheered and laughed, celebrating, and apparently we were so loud that the needle of the record player picked up the vibrations. Our friend could hear the ghostly echo of our laughter on the tape.