About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

August 28, 2014

Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)

There may be a reason you never heard--or heard of--Rachmaninov's Vespers, and for the unusual difficulty I had finding out about it to prepare for my pre-concert talk on Sept 7, when Choral Arts Philadelphia will sing Vespers in the Playhouse by candlelight. Inna Lobanova-Heasley, a native Russian and singer with Choral Arts explains:
During my first 24 years of life in the Soviet Russia, having studied classical music and its history at a full-time music school for eight years, I had no idea about the existence of the Vespers or any other sacred music by any other composer whatsoever! This is how well this information was locked away from public eye in the Soviet Union.  
(Link to blog post with musical clip below)
We talked about how Christianity was brought to Russia almost two millennia ago, its liturgy, primarily by St. John Chrysostom, entirely in song (June 29). Though Rachmaninov avoided affiliation with the established church, he was not an irreligious man and church music and ritual were powerful influences on his life. "Vespers" is an English translation of the original Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, literally "All-Night Vigil," music for a night-long service celebrated in Russian monasteries and, on the eves of holy days, in Russian Orthodox churches.

The text contains Russian Orthodox versions of Latin hymns familiar to Westerners, including the Gloria in excelsis, Ave Maria, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. As in the Latin Vespers service, the source of most of the text is the Book of Psalms and the Gospels. Several sections come from age-old Znamenny chants, traditional monophonic songs known from the first consistently identifiable znamenniy (signs) by which Russian sacred music was notated, the chants dating back at least to the fifteenth century and probably earlier. Others are based on what the Russian church calls Greek chant, a seventeenth-century refinement involving the use of one-note recitatives and simple melismas. Two are traditional Kiev chants, with music alternating, in the style of Ukrainian folk music, between recitative and melodic parts. Finally, two songs are designated as troparia, examples of an ancient type of poetic invocation used in Eastern and Russian Orthodox services. (Nick Jones)

Rachmaninov wrote the Vespers in 1915 when at the height of his powers at age 42 according to the church tradition of unaccompanied voices. After his escape from the revolution in 1917 with his family on an open sled to Helsinki, he felt that he had lost some of his creativity. He became a touring virtuoso pianist playing is own compositions (like "Rach 1, 2, and 3" concertos), and living in Hollywood, probably experiencing new kinds of All-Night Vigils.

Notes: This concert will NOT last all night! Inna Lobanova-Heasley's lovely blog post is here.

August 11, 2014

"My Music"

One time I started listing what Leonard Bernstein meant by "hardening of the categories": rock, classical, pop, country-western, jazz…. A long list, maybe an artifact of recording-era catalogs. 

Some of our patrons come for only one concert each summer, the one in their category.

One determinant of your category is when you grew up. We can predict the age of the audience at Gretna Theater's "retrospectives: music of the '40's, '50's," etc. (disregard the roaring '20's background at intermissions), and maybe those attending our August 30 Tierney Sutton sings Joni Mitchell (music of the '70's, '80's; category: "pop/rock/jazz"). That's because, according to psychologist Dan Levitin, 
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
I don't know the science of that assertion but it held true for me. As a child I raced through categories. Home sick from first grade I called in a request to local AM radio for a gospel song, Up Above My Head. Next I marched to the Cities Service Band of America every Monday night after we finally got FM. I liked broadcasts of Marian McPartland and the Oklahoma City Symphony and the Boston Pops and Leroy Anderson. I wish my parents had listened to the Met Opera on Saturday afternoons.

At about age thirteen, after hearing my father play them since I learned to walk, I invaded his collection of "78's." Schubert, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Sibelius were his badges of identity, and thus became mine. An identity like his was my goal.

Millennials speak of "my music." If it fits into a category ("genre" on iTunes), they may not know which, but they can easily find the most popular songs, the sources of cool. Many avoid the classical genre ("your music," they say), as some parents, schools, and even churches have. What will they will listen to when they mature?

Like arteries, categories start hardening early in life. I try to keep mine open. 

"Music, Mr. Gershwin," said Alban Berg, "is music."