Thursday, January 30, 2014

Voices of the Oppressed

I am in the process of slowly reading Rebecca Rischin's For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. I find myself deeply moved to think that such tremendous music could have possibly been produced in the midst of the tragedy of the Holocaust. I've never had the opportunity to perform any of the Quartet for the End of Time, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

Last week, the arts and humanities faculty at Mid-South Community College were challenged to brainstorm possible topics for inter-disciplinary courses that we might develop in the future. Since my mind was already dealing with the Holocaust, I immediately began to think of an appropriate way to work the Messiaen into a larger course for non-musician undergraduates. My thought was a course combining history, literature, music, and art that focuses on the oppressed.

At first, I thought the topic would be far too disturbing for most students. Then I began to realize that in many of these situations, the creative arts express a level of hope that exceeds the bounds of the victims' situations and looks to the freedom that is promised in the future. Many of the works are grounded in a common faith that there is a Higher Being at work in our lives. I was encouraged to think of the impact such a study might have on students who are facing personal difficulties in the Delta.

Which oppressed groups would we explore? That's still open for debate. From a musical perspective, I clearly thought of the spirituals of the American slave as well as the importance of music in the 20th century Civil Rights movement. Messiaen's quartet represents the music of the Holocaust as well as the piano solos of Gideon Klein. It would also be interesting to compare the music of South Africa during the days of Apartheid with the American Civil Rights songs, as well.

When you think of music of an oppressed people, what music comes to mind? I'd love to have your feedback and ideas.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Understanding Classical Music: Texture

Many children discover that they prefer food of a specific texture. Toddlers tend to prefer foods that are smooth and easy to chew.  As the child ages, he becomes more willing to explore new textures as long as there is a comfortable and appealing taste at the forefront. With maturity, we learn to appreciate the variety and contrast that vegetables and delicate sauces bring.

Music can also be described as having various textures. Some compositions have a single melody line that soars above an unobtrusive accompaniment. Others are marked by a single musical line that dances about our ears without the aid of any other sound. Still others delight our senses as the multiple melodies intertwine, making a beautifully complex sum of its individual parts.

There are three basic types of musical texture.  First comes monophony. Monophony literally means "one sound." Monophonic music is the simplest in texture, having only one musical line. No contrasting accompanying figures compete or support the line. It is not a matter of how many voices or instruments are involved, but rather that they are all "singing" the same musical line.  A child singing a familiar nursery rhyme alone on a playground is an example of monophony. A classroom full of children singing the same nursery rhyme in unison without an accompaniment also constitutes monophonic music.

In art music, monophony is most obviously found in Gregorian chant of the Medieval era. Monophony can be used in later eras as well when a composer wants to draw special attention to the melody. To hear an example of monophony, listen to this Kyrie.

Homophony implies "same sound." Homophonic music has multiple voices (or musical lines) that are all supporting a single melody.  In other words, a simple melody is set against a chordal accompaniment. The supporting voices never threaten to take the interest away from the melody. Many early art songs and arias are homophonic in texture.  The aria "Tu se morta" from Monteverdi's Orfeo demonstrates the use of homophony in early opera. The texture can also be heard in Chopin's Nocturne in Eb Major. (While the accompaniment of both pieces is rather active, notice that the melody is always the focus; the accompaniment simply serves to propel the piece along.)

Polyphony is quite possibly the most commonly found musical texture. Polyphonic music has multiple voices that are all of equal importance. That's why we call it polyphony, meaning "many sounds." Polyphonic music is the most complex texture and the most interesting to our ears. As an example of polyphony, listen to this fugue by J.S. Bach as well as the energetic "Gloria" from Bernstein's Mass.

It is important to remember that textures can change within a single composition. So a composer can begin with polyphony, briefly shift to monophony and/or homophony, before returning to polyphony. Want to hear an example of mixing textures? I can think of no better example than Handel's glorious Hallelujah Chorus!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Preparing for the Olympics

I am not an athlete. Any activity that involves a ball or blades is simply not for me. Every few years, though, I become an armchair athlete as I root on the Olympians gathered to represent their nations in sporting events of all kinds. One of my favorite parts of the Games is watching the medal ceremonies. I'm moved by the passion of the athletes who have dedicated so much of their life for this moment. I also enjoy hearing the national anthems of the triumphant nations.

I don't think I am in the minority when I admit that I am not very familiar with many national anthems. In addition to the American anthem, I feel confident that I could pick out the Canadian, French, English, and German anthems. Beyond that, I'm at a loss! If you are as interested in the music as I am, I may have found a website that you will also enjoy. contains historical information about the development of the anthems as well as mp3's and sheet music for many of the national pieces. I found myself surfing the site for quite a while, learning about the music's transformations over time.

As the Olympic Games draw near, it might be interesting to have my students compare the sounds of anthems from different parts of the world. By having them describe how the sounds of the Italian anthem differ from that of the Turkish, students begin to explore the similarities and differences between the various musics of the world.

Happy surfing!