Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Alabama Shakes

My new favorite group is the Alabama Shakes. Singer Brittany Howard gives me the same kind of thrill I used to get from Janis. Here they are at Bonnaroo:

Phillip Glass Flash Choir in NYC

June found this one, and it's really lovely. An ad hoc choir assembles in Times Square to perform a piece by Phillip Glass, led by Kent Tritle:

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Som Sabadell flashmob

If you have not seen this yet, please watch and share. We need fewer wars and more of this sort of thing, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Hammer of Fate

Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860. His musical talent was recognized early, and at the age of 18, he began his career as a conductor. Like the 20th-century conductor Leonard Bernstein, Mahler was also a composer, but had to focus most of his energy and time on his primary source of income – conducting.

Fate began dealing blows to Mahler early in his life. At key moments in his life, family members died, including two of his brothers; the youngest – Otto – by suicide. Mahler struggled against antisemitism most of his life, and even converted to Catholicism in order to secure a post as a Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1897. Ironically, this did little to quell the antisemitic attacks which continued throughout his life. Mahler's own health was poor, and in 1907, shortly after the death of his young daughter Maria from diphtheria, Mahler was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition; he died of a related infection in 1911.

Mahler did not have a huge compositional output. He completed nine symphonies and was at work on a tenth when he died. Like many restless composers, he continually revised and re-revised his works throughout his life.

One of the most unique of Mahler's symphonies is the Sixth, which has sometimes been called "The Tragic." This is a huge, rich composition in four movements. While the nominal key of the composition is A minor, there is frequent shifting from major to minor sonorities. Similarly, the textures shift from light to heavy, and from joy to grief throughout the symphony.

It is in the last of the four movements that Mahler lays bare his soul and his feelings about the blows fate has dealt him in his life. To make those blows explicit in a musical way, Mahler added a unique percussion part to the score, which was marked simply as, "Hammer." This, he wrote, should be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)."
The hammer in Mahler's sixth. Markings by L. Bernstein.

The hammer blows fall at just three places in the Finale. Mahler later removed the third, instead letting the music build and build, culminating in stark silence to represent the final blow.

But how to make such a sound? It is known that in Mahler's lifetime, he was never really satisfied with any of the contraptions invented to try to fulfill his wishes. To this day, orchestras struggle with how to create Mahler's "Hammer of Fate." Some orchestras use a large wooden box, struck with a hefty wooden maul. Others combine a large bass drum with other percussion devices to simulate the sound. It's the orchestral equivalent of cranking the amps up to "11" – the hammer blows should be felt in the chest, and should startle and thrill the listener.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra's hammer

I love watching symphonies perform the final movement. I wait with anticipation for the hammer blows, and delight in seeing a percussionist raise the huge mallet high above his or her head just before the triple-forte quarter-notes in the score.

Here is an excerpt from the Finale, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink. The first hammer blow is at about 3:07:

There are a number of performances of Mahler's Sixth Symphony available online. I highly recommend you seek out full recordings of all four movements.