Classical Music’s Monster Mothers: An Anti-Mother’s Day Playlist

As Mother’s Day draws near, a number of music commentators have put forth lovely little playlists of appropriate music  for the holiday.  I myself have assembled one, found here.  These lists tend to abound in tender, gentle, loving pieces… perfect to celebrate the perfect mom.

But you know, as I was assembling my list I realized something was amiss…not everyone’s mom is perfect.  Where’s a list paying homage to those monster moms? A list for those who spend Mother’s Day cowering in therapy?

Not to worry—I’ve got you covered.

Here’s an irreverent classical playlist, full of moms who will make the your difficult mother look great by comparison.

Happy [sic] Mother’s Day! Continue reading

Classical Music for Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.

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The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, believing he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.  That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, within Mexico the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and a time for the honoring of cultural symbols.  In this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading

“The Promise of Living:” Music for Election Day

Greetings, and Happy Election Day to my readers!  Its been a tumultuous political season, but today we bring it to an end by doing our most important civic duty—choosing the men and women who will lead this great country.  I know many just want the craziness to end, but for me this really is a joyful time… it is a national holiday where we get to chose our country’s future.

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I wanted to leave you with short piece of music that sums up this day and this time of year perfectly:  “The Promise of Living” from Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land.  The setting is the Midwest during the Depression.  Two migrant farm workers have just arrived at a family farm… just in time for harvest.  In “The Promise of Living,” the workers and the family look ahead to the work of bringing in harvest, sharing in both the work and the bounty.  The song also celebrates family, community, faith in the future, and God’s blessings.

There are many videos of the song out there, but this one in its full chorus version seems particularly appropriate for today.  Enjoy, and vote!

 

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“The Promise of Living”
Music by Aaron Copland, text by Horace Everett (pseudonym of Erik Johns)
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The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving
is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing
is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

For many a year we’ve known these fields and known all the work that makes them yield.
Are you ready to lend a hand? We’ll bring in the harvest, the blessings of harvest.

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a hand, by lending an arm, bring out from the farm,
bring out the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain.
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain.
Come join us in thanking the Lord for his blessing.
O let us be joyful. O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding
is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

O let us sing our song, and let our song be heard.
Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.
The promise of living.
The promise of growing.
The promise of ending is labor and sharing our loving.

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Xochipilli

Classical Music for Halloween: An Edgar Allan Poe Playlist

October is here!  Halloween fast approaches—it’s a time of harvest moons and leering jack-o’-lanterns, and images of ghosts, goblins, and witches are springing up everywhere.

Around this time of year, lots of folks begin posting Halloween “best of” lists, providing recommendations for scariest movies, best horror novels, and more.  Classical music groups get into the fun too, as orchestras start putting together spooky concerts, and recommending terrifying playlists.  I applaud the notion, but it can get wearying to see the same horrifying pieces recycled again and again… works like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, Pachelbel’s Canon in D….

To stay in the spirit of the holiday, but to go in a slightly different direction, let me recommend a different kind of classical playlist—one dedicated to works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Continue reading

A Classical Autumn Playlist

Fall is here!

With dusk coming on earlier and earlier, there’s a new crispness to the air. It is a time when iced tea gives way to apple cider, and school buses start to nudge out ice cream trucks on neighborhood streets.

In honor of the new season, let me provide a listening guide to some of my favorite autumn-themed works of classical music, listed alphabetically by composer. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments. Enjoy! Continue reading

Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.

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Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy! Continue reading