Felix Mendelssohn: “Hebrides” Overture, also known as “Fingal’s Cave” Overture
As a young man, Mendelssohn traveled to Scotland, and found it tremendously inspiring. He visited a place called “Fingal’s Cave,” which I also got to see a few years ago, so I’ve included some pictures of it. (We also saw some dolphins on the boat ride back, maybe he saw them too!) The piece is titled “overture” but is not an introduction to anything; it belongs to the genre of “tone poem,” which pretty much means what you’d imagine. Specifically, you can hear the darkness of the cave, the swelling and receding of the waves (apparently Mendelssohn got pretty seasick, maybe he was trying to capture that in the music too!), and maybe the cries of seabirds?
He was a spectacular prodigy, but also one who found everything difficult, and he was constantly dissatisfied with his work—this piece took about three years to finish, and he even renamed it several times. I find it somewhat comforting to look at early drafts of his work and see that, frankly, sometimes they’re not very good! Music didn’t just spring, fully-formed from his mind; he had to work at it.
And, if you’ll humor me, a few thoughts about all this listening... You probably think I’m crazy to create all this extra work for myself, and you’re probably right! And I know I am not going to change the world by sending out some YouTube clips. But if I can change even slightly anyone’s mentality about why we study music, then maybe it will be worth it.
I imagine most parents sign their children up for music lessons for some combination of these reasons, and they’re not necessarily “wrong” or bad--
-They think it might be “fun.”
-They want their kids to be “well-rounded.”
-They heard that it improves grades and test scores, and think it’ll make their kids smarter. (Maybe true for some, but I can tell you that sadly it did NOT do any these things for me! )
-They think it’ll help get their kids into a good college.
-They wish they’d had the chance when they were young.
Then, once the child involved in music, it is all about how “talented” they end up being, and who is more or less advanced than the next person, which is somehow supposed to determine if doing it is “worth it.” I get it, I was in a very intense musical environment growing up, and I realize now that I and those around me emphasized all the wrong things. I WISH someone had shown me that the real superpower you gain when you study music is the ability to truly LISTEN, but only if you decide to use it, and for me that happened way too late. I would have been a happier person, as well as a more loving and giving person (and even a more successful musician! because the reality is that a career in music is not solely about raw skill on your instrument) if I had recognized this ability sooner and, importantly, PRACTICED using it. It is now very difficult for me to listen the way I want to, but hopefully it’s not too late for my students!
If you’re still even reading, the last thing you want is ANOTHER YouTube clip from me, and you can definitely save this one for later. But I’ll share it now, though it might not be the last time, because this idea is so important. This is Evelyn Glennie, a renowned percussionist, who happens to be profoundly deaf—she lost her hearing at the age of 12—speaking about how to listen. Hint: it’s not just with your ears. Though she doesn’t do it here, she generally performs barefoot and “hears” the music through her feet. (She also gave a wonderful TED talk which is worth watching, but this is shorter!)
Congratulations on finishing the challenge!
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Roman, 1525-1594): Sicut Cervus
Anniversary of his death on February 2 (his birth date is not known)
Palestrina is another one of those composers you should know about, even though you may never perform his music (and even if you don’t love it!). He is often considered the musical embodiment of something called the “counter-reformation.” To put it VERY simply: in 1517 Martin Luther started the Protestant reformation, a “protest” and rebellion against the Catholic Church. As often happens, a counter-reformation followed, in which Catholic leaders tried to defend and strengthen their church and its traditions. Musically, the music of the reformation was “homophonic,” which means all the voices in the texture move together. Think of “A Mighty Fortress”/“Ein Feste Burg” which we heard a couple weeks ago in Bach and Mendelssohn. In contrast, Palestrina mostly used “polyphonic” textures in his music—which means the voices are singing different words at different times. Martin Luther thought this obscured the all-important text, but Palestrina proved that one could write in polyphony and still keep the words clear.
I surveyed my early music singer friends on their favorite Palestrina work, and the one chosen by most was “Sicut Cervus.” Here’s the text:
Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
As a hart longs for the flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.
Florence Price (American, 1887-1953)
I’ve been involved in music for over 35 years, and it makes me sad that in all that time in youth orchestras, fancy music schools, professional orchestras, etc. I’d never even heard of Florence Price until very recently. It is definitely my personal failing, but also the failing of the musical institutions I’ve been part of. (Interestingly, Price was a close colleague of William Grant Still, whose work I first performed in high school, almost 25 years ago, so make of that what you will...) Happily there has recently been renewed interested in her work, and I’m sure even more research will be done in coming years, so we have much to learn from.
I thought I’d share this part of a documentary so you can learn about her along with me.
I admit I’m not at all familiar with her work (looking forward to getting to know it!), but I was charmed by this piece, which is clearly based on spirituals, but whose harmonies and orchestration contain hints of Schubert, Dvorak, and some early 20th century composers. It begins with a slow section, but alternates with livelier material starting around 6:47.
Up to you whether you want to watch some of the documentary, listen to some music (my selection or another), or both!