Ethan Philion's Blog

An Oberlin course blog

Ethan Philion's Blog header image 1

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces

May 9th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces came as a shock initially. After all, in this course we’ve really focused on grandiose songs: songs that swell up and fill the listeners with awe, joy, or sorrow. The Romantic pieces we’ve listened to have been majestic and ground-breaking. They are filled with complex harmonies, reinvented forms, and revolutionary ideas about the role of music. Yet, Grieg’s pieces were completely different. Yes, there were complex harmonies, and unique forms. But the music was extremely melancholy in comparison to the other pieces we’ve listened to. Some of the pieces were achingly beautiful. In particular I enjoyed “Melodie,” but nevertheless they were tame in comparison to the rest of our listening. At times I found myself being bored, since all the pieces conveyed the same sort of mood. That being said, Grieg has a clear musical voice that I enjoyed. However, I found myself wanting some change; I wanted some powerful theme to come in and disrupt the melancholy, if only for a few seconds. Additionally, I found the melodies in the pieces very beautiful, but I couldn’t remember any of them after listening to the pieces. This contributed to my opinion that, while beautiful, Grieg’s pieces were not particularly memorable. I think they would function best in a concert of other Romantic Music, and they would serve as a wonderful change of pace. However, alone the pieces blurred together.

→ No CommentsTags:

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

May 2nd, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

I enjoyed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition a great deal. I listened to Ravel’s orchestrated version and was impressed by the emotive nature of the Promenade theme. The string parts really added to the grandiose nature of the piece. I loved how the music alternated between what sounded like harmonic exploration that felt somewhat chaotic and beautiful lyrical lines that seem to know exactly where they want to go. Not only did this piece capture the pictures by the artist Hartmann; they were also effective in producing other images and moods in my mind. I found the piece very expressive, as if the music was drawing up memories from real life and dreams.

I also listened to the original piano scoring of the piece. At first I wondered if the piano would be able to capture the grandness of the full symphony’s rendition. However, by the second bar I understood why Mussorgsky composed the piece for piano. The lyrical melodies lie beautifully on the piano, and the chaotic searching section sound fantastic as well. This is one of my favorite pieces that we’ve listened to for class.

→ No CommentsTags:

Strauss, Rosenkavalier

April 25th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

Rosenkavalier was one of my less favorite Operas that I’ve listened to for class. Perhaps it was the recordings I listened to, but the music frequently seemed haphazard and scattered. I found myself becoming disinterested with the harmonic movement. The plot line served as a stark opposite to the previous week’s opera: this opera focused on fairly average people (although they were mostly of the high upper class) and was driven by emotional and interpersonal conflict. At times the music seemed a bit overdramatic for a plot that could be resolved if the two secret lovers simply confessed. Perhaps this conflict was more compelling in Strauss’ day, but in terms of a modern social scene, the plot seemed fairly mundane. While at times I throughly enjoyed Strauss’ writing, I was mostly bored by the opera and frustrated with the lack of compelling harmonies.

→ No CommentsTags:

Wagner’s Parsifal Act III

April 25th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

Like many of Wagner’s operas, Parsifal is based on a legend or myth, in this case the quest for the Holy Grail. In comparison to some of the other myths Wagner used as thematic material, the quest for the Holy Grail is a fairly tame one. The music is also less intense than many of his other opera’s, while being just as evocative. He employs pastoral sounds in the Third Act during the Good Friday section in wonderful ways. It starts with a beautiful clarinet solo, and slowly layers and layers are added on top of it. The music swells and dies down in the appropriate plot related places. While the overall mood of the scene stays fairly consistent, the energy fluctuates, just as it would in any interpersonal conversation. While sections are especially dark and dreary, the primary mood of Good Friday Music seems to be hopeful. It is full of bold ascending lines, which usually represent hope of transcendence. Furthermore, Wagner employs what I assume are leitmotives a great deal throughout the third act. While I did not listen to the whole opera, I can’t identify what the lietmotivs represent, but I did notice repeated patterns and phrases. Lastly, Wagner’s vocal lines were particularly interesting. Usually I mostly notice the Orchestra in Wagner’s music, but in Parsifal I was intrigued by the vocal music.

→ No CommentsTags:

Verdi, Don Carlos

April 25th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

The Prelude to Act IV starts off with foreboding dissonant punches from the strings and brass. This gives way to flowing lyrical, yet still deeply tortured, cello solo. As the rest of the orchestra enters again the listener feels profoundly saddened. The cello solo is a lament. This mood is appropriate, since the Prelude to act IV follows the burning of several heretics, and a scene of intense conflict. The orchestra’s dialogue with the cello builds slowly, giving the listener a sense of foreboding, but then drops away to give away to the action of Act IV. The prelude sets up the Act, which is filled with emotional suffering and confusion.

The duet later in the act is just as intense, but in a different way. The interplay between the male and female voices is dark, but has much more momentum than the Prelude. The two characters are clearly upset with each other, and their separate angry lines occasionally converge to stress their shared frustration. The melodic lines are packed with emotion, as is the plot in Act IV. Verdi is masterful in his use of Romantic harmonies, while never sacrificing the plot or sense of emotion for the sake of writing interesting music.

→ No CommentsTags:

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 and Schumann’s Three Romances

April 25th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

I enjoyed Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 a great deal. The dialogue between the strings and piano was ingenious. I particularly enjoyed the first movement’s manipulation and experimentation with the original theme stated by the cello. This trend is extended to the following movements as well; the piano frequently picks up and distorts the theme that the violin or cello has, or vice versa. The piano’s role in the Trio was vital, which is indicative of the piano writing of the time, where virtuosity was required for performing pianists.

Mendelssohn was heavily influenced and recommended by Schumann, who claimed Mendelssohn was the next Mozart. Clara Schumann’s Three Romances was also beautiful, but in a lighter, more whimsical way. The beginning sets the mood beautifully, with flowing lyrical lines from both the piano and the violin. Just as in the Mendelssohn Trio, the dialogue between the instruments is astounding. Neither one seems to be accompanying the other; instead the piano and violin dance together in alternating melodies and harmonies.

→ No CommentsTags:

Act II of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell

March 15th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

I enjoyed listening to Act II of Guillaume Tell. In particular, I enjoyed the Act II Trio. While I couldn’t understand what they were saying, the interaction between the characters was still very poignant and understandable. In particular, the waltz in the middle of the piece was beautiful. I thought that the music lined up well with the plot in the second act. The two main characters pledge their love and promise to be faithful. The music throughout the act is recitative-esque, with beautiful contributions from the strings and winds. It has been said that the second act is Rossini’s best work, and I can see why. Every note seems to be carefully calculated to accomplish a powerful emotional response.

→ No CommentsTags:

Rossini’s La Cenerentola

March 5th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

I enjoyed Rossini’s opera based on the fairy tale Cinderalla. I especially the stark dynamic contrasts in the overture, which gave the music a clear and enjoyable story line. The playful sections in the overture were fun to listen to; the bouncy style evoked a fairy tale-esque kind of mood. The music in the opera did a nice job of reflecting the pluck and courage of the main character. At times the music in the first act was humorous and comedic, but at times it was extremely serious. Consequently the music reflected the story line of the opera. Th opera’s story has many comedic elements, but it also has a serious undertone and extreme power and status distances. While this opera was not well received at its premier, I understand why it is considered one of Rossini’s best operas and why it is the most well known operatic version of the Cinderella tale in the musical canon.

→ No CommentsTags:

Schubert and His Trout

February 28th, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

I enjoyed both Schubert’s Die Forelle and his Piano Quintet in A Major, or the Trout as it is sometimes called. Both pieces had beautiful melodic lines that caught my attention immediately. The lied Die Forelle was lively and extremely catchy. The theme is catchy, and it stayed in my ear for a while after listening to it.

Similarly, many of the melodies in the piano quintet caught my ear. Furthermore, I enjoyed the unique instrumentation of the piece; using two violins, a cello, and a bass furthered the fluid stexture of the piece that evoked images of fish swimming underwater. The first movement was beautiful, with its long flowing lines and consonant harmonies. I enjoyed the way he used a fairly standard sonata allegro form, but also used abrupt key changes to add interesting colors to the piece. While I loved the first movement, my favorite movement was the fourth, in which Schubert engages in a theme and variations of the theme in Die Forelle. The theme of the lied was already tuneful and almost playful, but Schubert’s variations on it take the playful aspect to another level. I liked that Schubert didn’t use the theme to create new thematic material, but instead focused on embellishing the theme. At times the theme sounds almost forlorn, such as when it is played by the cello, but for the most part the theme is joyous, like when it is played by the piano in the middle. This movement was a pleasure to listen to.

Schubert appeals to me for accessibility to the listener. While Schubert often employs complex harmonic modulations and structures, he also is also conscious of presenting a tuneful theme. This means that regardless of one’s musical knowledge, it is possible to enjoy Schubert’s compositions. There are plenty of aspects of Schubert’s music to enjoy, whether the listener is well versed in classical music or is listening to classical music for the first time.

→ No CommentsTags:

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

February 21st, 2011 by Ethan Philion · Uncategorized

For a piece that Beethoven occasionally referred to as his greatest work and a work that is commonly thought of as the most important Mass setting in the Common Practice Period, I was a little disappointed by Beethoven’s Mass Solemnis. While many parts of the Mass were extremely emotionally compelling, I found myself occasionally growing bored with the piece, a feeling I’m not used to when listening to Beethoven. One of the elements of Beethoven’s music that I enjoy the most is his use of contrasts, and this Mass didn’t seem to contain many. While there were some dynamic contrasts, there weren’t many thematic contrasts, which may have contributed to my boredom.

One element of the piece I did appreciate was the obvious attention to detail on Beethoven’s part. While Beethoven did not write many religious pieces, since he (like many Romantic thinkers) wanted to focus more on the power of mankind than the power of some divine being, he clearly researched other mass settings. first of all, he translated the Latin text into german so his audience could understand it better. In the Kyrie, the first verse is in 2, while the second verse is in 3/2. This change in time signature is characteristic of other Kyrie masses. The Kyrie is supposed to represent the trinity, and Beethoven seems to further this focus on the holy trinity through the use of frequent thirds.

While the Kyrie held many similarities to traditional settings of the mass, the Gloria demonstrates Beethoven’s willingness to completely change his approach. The Gloria goes through numerous changes in dynamics, tonality, and themes. Consequently, it is almost never performed in actual masses. While this section shows Beethoven at the height of his compositional ability, given his brilliant part writing and modulations, I found the movement somewhat disconnected, and while there were many different themes none of them seemed to differ that much from the others.

The Credo was my favorite part of the Mass that we listened to. I liked how the theme Beethoven introduced at the beginning continued throughout the piece, giving it a kind of unification. Furthermore, in this movement Beethoven employs modal harmonies, which were indicative of spiritual elements in early church music. This section of the mass held the most emotional contrasts, while still containing a unifying theme.

The Missa Solemnis is clearly a compositional masterpiece. Yet, the dark mood of the mass is too pervasive. Part of Beethoven’s power lies in his ability to contrast extremely dark and moody sections with optimistic and bright sections that give us all hope. Yet, in this mass there is almost entirely only darkness. The mass has transcendent elements, but only of a gloomy nature. It is useful to look at the reaction to this piece compared with his ninth Symphony, which premiered around the same time. The public was significantly more in favor of his 9th Symphony, because of its hopeful element. Beethoven was brilliant at writing beautiful, sublime, moody music, yet, for me at least, his true genius was his ability to write music that transcended the gloom and darkness that he himself experienced and portrayed in his music.

→ No CommentsTags: