When I was but a mere lad, growing up in the elysian fields just outside of New Haven, my brothers and I subsisted on what was then the standard teenage fare: hard rock and heavy metal music (yes, the ugly truth comes out). One of my favorites was a young Swede by the moniker of Yngwie Malmsteen whose lightening quick fretwork and classically influenced instrumental compositions drew rave reviews... until he added a singer. It was in a guitar magazine interview with Mr. Malmsteen that he mentioned a classical music piece that he recommends for all aspiring guitarists. I was not a guitarist then (nor now. Bass is what throbs my heart) but, being a bit of a musicologist, I was in the practice of following up on such references and occasionally finding gems (Twisted Sister led me to Alice Cooper... need I say more?). And so I ordered my first classical music record from Tim at the Wooden Nickel collectors store (plug). When the black platter arrived, I was not sure what to expect. Up until that time, my musical vocabulary extended all the way from 1964 (Beatles) to 1984, so as the diamond-tipped needle touched down and the voice of a single violin came singing through my speakers, I wasn't sure what to think. But I listened to the entire piece. After a second listen, I was starting to recognize some of the melodies, and after the third time through, I was hooked (to this day, I give each new piece at least three listens before I decide if it's a keeper or a bag of festering lima beans. Of course, after a mere three times through I haven't even begun to pick up on all the nuances of the piece, but if there is something there that intrigues me, it almost always does so by the third listening). The piece that day was "24 Caprices, Opus 1", the composer, Nicolň Paganini, perhaps the greatest violinist of all time.
Although I now realize that Paganini is considered a small fry in the realm of classical composers (although he influenced many of the "great" composers, many of whom used melodies by Paganini in their own works) and that some people see him as more flash than substance, all I knew that summer before I started high school was that there was something daring, something exciting in this music. But why am I going on about this? The Fort Wayne Philharmonic season is nearly over and Paganini isn't on their roster this year or next. Let's just say that like all music lovers, I want to share the music that I like with others. And so, this article is about two pieces that are particular favorites of mine. Let's begin, shall we?
Nicolň was born in 1782 in Italy. 'Nuff said on that topic. He made his first public violin performance at the tender age of nine and held a number of prestigious positions during his early career. But it wasn't until we was nearly twenty-five that he taught himself the dazzling techniques for which he is known. What would make a man so late in life learn such astounding skills? The answer, of course, is the same reason that causes teenagers now to learn the guitar, that causes men to explore new lands, that caused Einstein to deduce that E=MC2. Yes, they were all trying to impress women. Paganini was no slouch on the guitar either, but at that time, the guitar was seen mostly as an accompaniment instrument and not so much the blazing "babe-magnet" it is today. The techniques perfected by Paganini revolutionized the musical world. Imagine Jimi Henrix, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Adrian Belew all rolled into one. This was our little Nicolň. His perfect technique, fervent and emotional style, and extreme personal magnetism drove audiences wild. One of his favorite tricks was to saw three of the four violin strings partway through. Invariably, they would break while he played, forcing him to finish playing the piece on one string! I'd like to see TODAY's hotshot guitarists do a solo on just one string! Sometimes he would have the lights dimmed while he improvised a particularly scary-sounding piece and when the candles were again lit, it was often the case that most of the audience members had fainted (this was before the era of Jerry Springer so people shocked easily). Such antics, and the fact that much of his music was considered unplayably difficult by other violinists, led to wild rumors about Paganini. Some said that he had sold his soul to the devil and cut off his wife's head or that he had stabbed a rival and learned to play while spending eight years in a dungeon. Others hinted that Nicolň was a Hanson fan, but some rumors are just too horrible to believe. It didn't help that he wore a sinister expression on his long, sallow face or that he always wore a long, black cloak or that he played music that sounded downright spooky! But this was all part of the impressive self-promotion that he created for himself. There was no direct mail marketing available (and no WhatzUp) so he had to do something! Paganini toured for twenty years, stopping due to failing health. He died in 1840 in Nice, Italy (a nice place to live).
The composition that exposed me to the world of classical music was written in 1813 and is the first major piece Paganini wrote (what did YOU think "Opus 1" meant?). The piece is made up of twenty-four technically impressive pieces (hence the name of the piece), each one between one and six minutes long. The great thing about this is that a new listener does not have to listen to a forty minute symphony and try to follow the themes, variations, expositions, and whatnot. Instead, the listener can listen to a short, three minute piece and not be bombarded by the complexities of an orchestral work. This is not to say that this piece is simple or even that it is cold and technical. Rather, it is emotional, exciting music in bite-sized pieces, perfect for a listener new to classical music. The temperament ranges from angry and mischievous to weepingly beautiful. And for anyone who plays a stringed instrument (except maybe the banjo), I must agree with Seniór Yngwie that this music will challenge you to new heights of skill.
On the other end of the spectrum is "Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta" by Béla Bartók. I won't tell you much about Bartók here, partly due to lack of space and partly because I plan to review one of his string quartets next season and I have to save my notes for then. Suffice it to say, Bartók is a modern composer whose works are not easily categorized. His music is always written around a tonal center, so it sounds "normal", unlike many 20th century composers who created serial or 12-tone music. He is also one of my personal favorites.
Bartók's "Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta" was written in 1936 at the peak of his creative career (the same year as he wrote his "Concerto for Orchestra", which you should seek out if you like this piece). Portions of this piece were used in Kubrick's "The Shining" and I'm almost positive I heard the third movement in the movie "Evil Dead". Yes, the music has an eerie quality to it and has been described as "a drama for the nerves, concentrating every horror, fear, and dread of the age..." This was the age of WW2 (no, not Wrestle-Mania) and the rise of Hitler, so there was much to fear.
The first movement begins with strings only, soothingly starting at a whisper and slowly and excruciatingly rising to a boiling point only to recede again into the darkness. The second movement is a lively, sarcastically playful, irregular jaunt, again building tension upon tension. The third movement incorporates the "night music" for which Bartók is known, creating a pensive mood of oppressive darkness, of being lost in the woods on a moonless night. The final movement is an energetic triumph, a joyous romp, presenting the question, "Have we overcome the darkness of the human soul?"
More on Bartok
As I stated above, these are two pieces which at one time or another occupied a great amount of my listening attention, so I'm pretty partial. But as my high school senior english teacher often said, "Matters of taste of not disputable", although he said it in Latin so it sounded fancier. This is to say that while I love this music, these pieces may leave you as cold as a Slurpee, your mileage may differ, my triple chocolate cake may be your braunschweiger soufflé. In any case, you'll never know if you don't try so git off yer duff, git down to the library and give some of this music a try!
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman