Classical Creep

I was listening to a song by Blue Oyster Cult and recognized part of “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.” Granted, that was a very popular composition among rock guitarists at the time, but I had to grin. They also slipped in a bit of “Hall of the Mountain King” in a different piece. Classical music appears a lot more than people would think, once you really listen carefully. Bach, of course, and Sabaton uses Bach at least once per album, or so it feels. Orff’s Carmina Burana and the tune of the “Dies Irae” are also found in many places.

It’s intriguing how rock borrows from classical and liturgical sources. Soundtracks are (in)famous for it, and Basil Poledouris got into legal trouble for the original Conan score. Why John Williams didn’t get in similar trouble I’m not sure (both borrowed from Holst). The invention of the leitmotif by Wagner was a boon for later generations of composers. But to pull entire patterns and chunks of a composition . . . You don’t have to dig very deep into many rock-song writers’ backgrounds to find at least a basic education in the western musical canon. They have that tool in their toolboxes, and know what is available to fit the sound they want.

Soundtrack Review: The Rocketeer

Horner, James The Rocketeer 2020 remaster and 1991 original.

Way back when, Disney released a film that was pure 1930s pulp, with a fun soundtrack that included period pieces and period-sounding pieces. That movie was The Rocketeer. It was based on a comic-book series that was an homage to the pulps and adventure films of the 1920s-30s. The film is a romp, and the comics are very impressive (a full hardbound set is coming out this fall.) I’d sort of forgotten about the soundtrack until Sib-in-Law pinged me about it. It was released in 1991, re-released in 2016, and expanded and re-released last year.

James Horner (of Titanic fame, among other things), did the soundtrack. Like the film, it is great fun, and you will probably recognize the main theme, because it has been used here and there since the movie was released. The re-master includes the classic “Begin the Beguine,” well done by Melora Hardin (for the original instrumental version, see below).

The music is NOT, in general, 1930s sounding (as compared to soundtracks from actual movies of the era). It is very symphonic Hollywood, lots of soaring melodic lines and fast chase scenes, which fits the film. There are Big Band numbers as well, as befits the time and setting of a stunt pilot/barnstormer trying to romance a Hollywood starlet. (Howard Hughes appears as a character in the film, as does one of his actual aircraft designs. Those in the know laughed at that scene, or at least the pilots I know found it very entertaining.) The remastered soundtrack sounds good as either a CD or MP3.

The 2021 release includes both the later remastered version with additional songs and the two vocal numbers, and the original 1991 “theatrical soundtrack” which is shorter. The price for the MP3 file is reasonable. The prices for the CDs on Amazon started at $100.

I’d recommend this soundtrack recording for fans of the film, fans of pulp movies in general, adventure music buffs, and people looking for a fast, solid melodic recording for writing or work-outs.

FTC Notice: I purchased this soundtrack for my own use and received no remuneration from the composer or the studio.

Walpurgisnacht

Tonight, the eve of the feast of St. Walburga (Walpurga), it is said that the witches of Germany gather on the Brocken, a mountain in the Harz. The night is held by many in Europe to be uncanny, for various reasons. Modest Mussorgsky wrote a tone-poem about this, “The Night on the Bare Mountain.”

Polonaise: Dance, Jacket, or Sandwich Spread?

OK, probably not the third option, but one never knows. There’s also a French sauce polonaise, just to further muddy the waters.

All these things are derived from the French adjective form of Poland. The music, a form of the sauce, and the jacket all derive from Polish folk music, cuisine, or folk costume.

A polonaise gown from the 1700s. Fair Use from: https://www.costumecocktail.com/2016/05/30/winged-robe-a-la-polonaise-ca-1778-1780/
Eighty years later . . . Image source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-2o-2048-61a3115b-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

From the front:

Source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-6o-2048-0f368201-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

The original form was a dress with a trim bodice that opened into an over-skirt. The back and sometimes sides were looped up into a bustle, revealing the color and details of the underskirt. I suspect the idea was to keep the outer skirt away from whatever you were working on, and you had an apron on over the dress. Or it was a way to show off embroidery and lace or ruffles on the under-skirt.

The polonaise musical form is a march in 3/4 time, or so it sound like. It is stately and does not have the intimate feel of a waltz. (Keep in mind, the waltz was scandalously intimate when it first debuted. His hand was where?!? They were how close?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3e1OH1BpjA

As you watch the video, note that under the faster beat is a slow 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It’s a very different feel from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 accented pattern of a waltz or minuet.

This is a concert polonaise rather than one intended for dancing, but you hear the same tension between the march feeling and the three beats to the bar. Chopin is famous for his polonaises, but other composers did and do write them.
In some ways, the polonaise reminds me a bit of a quadrille and other group dances (Irish, American) with the lines and movement. All hands are accounted for at all times. 😉

How to End Rehearsal Early

Open-air summer theater is popular in Germany. Productions range from local history to sort of “Ren-fest” to US-style musicals (Grease appears every summer, Candide is well liked.) The town of Schwäbish Hall is no exception to this. The long, curved stairs leading from the Marktplatz (market plaza) up to St. Michael’s Church form a good backdrop and stage, and shows are held four or five nights a week, weather permitting. My hotel room faced part of the steps, but unless I wanted to pay for a ticket, I was supposed to close the drapes and not watch. And yes, someone with binoculars kept track of rooms occupied vs. rooms occupied and with ticket. I kept the drapes closed.

The church and steps. Creative Commons Fair Use. From: https://monkeysandmountains.com/destinations/travel-europe/travel-germany/

The weather that summer was cool and somewhat damp, with light rain every few days. This deterred neither the actors, who probably appreciated the cooler temperatures, nor the audience. Apparently it did reduce beer consumption, which the Biergartens [beer gardens] didn’t like, but “It’s not as bad as 2013.” (It stayed in the 50s-60s F well into late June. Some Biergartens never opened.) The show went on, although some dance numbers had both dry-weather and wet-weather versions, to allow for the slicker footing on wet stone and wet wooden platforms.

I’d been out and about in the morning, visiting museums and poking around all over the place, especially those corners where tourists didn’t go, starting at around 0530. The joys of June in northern latitudes, when sunrise comes very, very early. That afternoon, as I explored St. Michael’s church, it started to rain. Then storm. Frog-strangling, small-stream-flooding, garbage-can-floating rain. I finished in the church and raced across to my hotel, wrung out in the foyer under the watchful eye of the older woman at the desk, and retreated to my room to write and dry off. Did I mention it was pouring rain? No wind to speak of, but very heavy showers.

The cast of the musical was blocking the next show, despite the rain. The director had a large umbrella, under a small tent. I watched as I wrote. The young singers/dancers walked through several scenes, growing wetter and wetter, clothes plastered to them, hair wet. Still, rehearsal went on.

Crack BOOOOMMM! I jumped and the cast of the musical ducked. The thunder echoed a little off the stones of the square and church. After a moment, the actors got back to their feet and resumed.

CRACK BOOM!

The sound person waved his hands frantically. The director waved her hands back. The cast scattered for cover. After a brief pow-wow, the sound person sealed up the sound booth, lowered the tent flaps, and fled like the sensible person he was. Something about electricity, lightning, and being higher than many of the surrounding buildings.

Storms continued to roll through that night. No show. The risk of electrocution and lightning-strike overrode the lost ticket sales.

But They Matched at Home: Musician World Problems

Spotlights are wonderful things if you are an audience member. They are dreadful if you are a performer. They are hot. They blind you. And perhaps worse, they reveal that your black jacket and black slacks do not match. Or your black blouse and skirt. Awkward!

It’s a bit of a joke—OK more than a bit—among the goth and related communities that you need to make certain that your blacks all match. Anyone who has tried to pair up green and green, or green and a few other colors, know that not all shades play well together. Green seems to be infamous for that, although I have seen shades of red that clashed in unpleasant ways. But black should be black, and so what if one has a little more blue and the other is a tad bit greener? In a dark club, at night, no one will notice. Right? Glamor goths seem a bit more concerned about this than are others, but you can be unpleasantly surprised that some combinations collide.

For classical musicians, and others under spotlights or sunlight, clashing blacks become very evident. For several years, I noted that a certain gentleman in a local orchestra had a bluish-black tailcoat but greenish-black slacks. The stage lights made it obvious, and brought out the clashing secondary hues. Last year he got new slacks, and the problem went away. I suspect that the coat was made of wool, and the trousers of cotton or wool-blend, leading to the problem. Different materials plus different dyes causes different shades of the same dominant color.

When everyone else’s blacks match, you don’t want to stand out. For that reason, I am very careful to make certain that my black blouses and black skirts match before chorus concerts, or are close enough that no one notices any difference. All are cotton. The skirts are twill, the blouses are a plain weave, and both are slightly bluer than “pure black.” It works. For performances with the symphony, I have a dress. It is all cotton and all the same material, so I do not have to worry about the painfully bright stage lighting making me look odd.

Black and green seem the hardest to match, or to get to blend well. For years, my wardrobe was black, khaki, blue, and one pair of green-brown slacks. A friend teased me about being Mennonite, because my colors were so plain and my style so modest. But everything worked together, and as long as I didn’t wear a blue shirt with the green-brown pants. I had no problems. Other than matching my blacks. My plumage has grown a bit more colorful since then (white dresses for summer church, a few true purple or cool purple-rose turtlenecks), but 90% of it is interchangeable. Yes, I do get dressed in the dark, fairly often. I don’t like sartorial surprises.

However, last week, I got out my black “I’m faculty” long-sleeve, official issue tee shirt and tried matching it with black corduroy pants. Not happening. The shirt had too much green in it for the black pants. The combination was unattractive. However, very, very dark hunter green with a black undertone? Perfect!

Yep, goth/musician-world problems. The struggle is real! 😉

Why Sacred Harp Sounds Strange

For people who grew up with “four-square” hymns and classical music, the American (and English) style of vocal music found in hymn book such as Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp sound very different, even unpleasant. The chords have been described as “open” and the tone “primitive.” Part of this comes from the modes used by composers, the keys and the frequently minor melodies. However, even major tunes can be off-kilter to some ears, even before you hear them done in a Sacred Harp Sing.

Just to really mess with you, musically, keep in mind that one of the greatest early-American composers, William Billings, was writing at the same time as Mozart. The sounds of the two are, let us say, somewhat different. William Billings came from an English popular tradition sometimes called “West Choir” music, because rather than singing as part of the formal choir in the chancel, people used the west choir in the church for unofficial spiritual and popular music singing when the service was not being held.

The composers and arrangers of many of the hymns in Southern Harmony, The Sacred Harp, and similar songbooks/hymnals were aiming for a harmonious setting of three or four parts. The groups of notes in “concord” or peaceful harmony, were fifths (do-so) and octaves (do-do). Thirds (do-me) and sixths (do-la) were lesser concords, used to add variety. However, discords, combinations of notes that were deliberately dissonant, added variety to the music, or could help emphasize a textual point. If the text is about the pains awaiting fallen sinners who do not repent, then lovely, sweet chords are probably not ideal. Or if the text is about spiritual warfare (“Oh When shall I see Jesus” aka “Morning Trumpet”), harsher sounds make more sense. In many ways, Sacred Harp music is text-driven almost as much as plainsong.

However, even though concords dominate in Sacred Harp, the sound remains different from, oh, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the type of hymn harmony popularized by Lowell Mason and used in many churches since the 1820s. This is because of how the chords are “stacked.” The Do-fa-ti (one-four-seven) combination is very common in Sacred Harp, far less so in main-line hymn harmonies. The sound strikes the ear as “open,” as if it is both dissonant and missing something in the middle. Fourths are used much, much more in Sacred Harp than in other styles of American hymnody.

[For a very detailed music-theory article, go here.]

Having three rather than four parts also lends an “odd” tone to the music, since everyone picks the line that fits his or her voice the best. The top line is “soprano” but you will find other voices there. The melody is generally in the tenor* line, but not always. Even four-part Sacred Harp harmonies can be strange-sounding to ears accustomed to other modes and ways of arranging tunes.

This is not to say that Sacred harp is always simple. William Billings “I am the Rose of Sharon” is a complicated setting of the text from Song of Songs. He also has a lot of “fuguing tunes,” where the melody appears, then a round, or fugue, form the core of the hymn, before resolving into a unison once more. The link takes you to a small professional ensemble doing “Rose of Sharon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OFnfWtIa10

So, for a bit of compare and contrast:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOwq3HLMKLY

The above is a trained early-music group doing “David’s Lamentation.” Below is a Sacred Harp sing doing the same setting and text.

Below is another of my favorites. Note that the text is an exultation, but the mode is minor, which seems a bit of a disconnect. You can certainly hear the “openness” in the chords.

Below is a professional chorus doing another famous Sacred Harp tune, arranged in a more conventional style:

If you don’t like the sound of “raw” Sacred Harp sing, you are not alone. As a fellow shape-note singer once said, “I’ll drive five hundred miles to sing it, but I won’t cross the road to listen to it.”

*Think of the Statler Brothers “Daddy Sang Bass (Mother sang Tenor).” That’s what they are describing.