Suggested Listening: “Tenebræ factæ sunt” by Carlo Gesualdo

Here’s some SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTICTenebræ factæ sunt by Carlo Gesualdo, performed below by Nordic Voices (NO).

About the Composer:

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Carlo Gesualdo (image via)

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is classical music’s darkest villain, a man whose eerie music is matched by a chilling biography comprising adultery and gruesome homicide.  From an early age, Gesualdo was enthralled by music, studying lute and forging relationships with local musical luminaries as a member of an elite accademia, or intellectual club.  Sent as a child to train for the priesthood, Gesualdo watched as his older brother Luigi was designated heir to the Principality of Venosa in southern Italy.  Luigi’s death in 1584, however, paved the way for Carlo’s ascension to power.  In 1586, Don Carlo Gesualdo married his cousin, the mythically beautiful Donna Maria d’Avalos, with whom he had a son and who, not four years after their marriage, could be found with her throat slashed, drenched in blood, in the bed of her lover.  The lover in question, the Duke of Andria, was murdered as well: the official who found the Duke’s body noted that his corpse was wearing “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom” and was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,” while “a bit of the brain had oozed out” of a gunshot wound to the head.  As a prince, a man of great influence and — apparently — violent inclination, Gesualdo was never tried for his crimes; in fact, he fled town following the murders, leaving behind a bizarre legacy: a trail of lurid rumors that to this day inhabit Italian folklore;  and dozens of musical compositions, sacred and secular, renowned for their twisted emotional intensity.

About the Piece:

The question that haunts Gesualdo’s musical legacy is this: was he a tormented genius whose inner turmoil came to life in the unusual, grating harmonies of his compositions — or, were his unusual, grating harmonies the result of mediocre musical talent, nonetheless thrust into the spotlight by the macabre glamour of his criminal record?  Regardless of the answer, Gesualdo’s music is widely viewed as ahead of its time, pushing the notion of tonality across thresholds of conventionality that most Western composers wouldn’t dare toe until the turn of the 20th century.  In Tenebræ factæ sunt, a selection from his set of liturgical works for Good Friday, six voices croon and cluster in stirring harmonies that progress through tightly adjacent chromatic lines.  Though the pacing is calm — almost eerily so — the piece is marked by surprising shifts of mood, from despair to ecstasy, as the Latin text recounts the crucifixion.

Further Reading:

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Suggested Listening: “Travelling” by Meredith Monk

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC selection is an unusual one.  Enjoy Meredith Monk’s “Travelling,” performed below by the composer.

About the Composer:

I first encountered the American composer Meredith Monk (b. 1942) in the very last class period of a music history course entitled “Music & Society: 1880-2001,” one of my favorite courses I’ve ever taken.  The curriculum swept from Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss — composers of the early 20th century who pushed the boundaries of the preceding era’s musical conventions — all the way to John Adams and Steve Reich — members of the recent “Minimalist” movement of hypnotic, repetitive, and thought-provoking compositions — finally ending with a lecture called “Crossing Over,” about today’s fascinating community of interdisciplinary, genre-bending composer-artists.  Meredith Monk is one such artist.

She’s a composer, but she’s also a singer, choreographer, and film director, among other fields.  She trained in piano and eurhythmics — a type of musical pedagogy that transforms rhythm into body movement — at Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1964 and immediately launching into the world of performance art.  Her career has been dynamic and applauded, with accolades including some five honorary doctorates and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.  As a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she is for many a role model, pioneer, and icon.

Monk’s music is highly unique: Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as “both primordial and futuristic;” my professor aptly called it “folk music from the future.”  She uses the human voice — particularly, her own voice — in unusual ways, incorporating sound effects such as whining and gasping and, more often than not, omitting any actual text or lyrics.  Famously, Monk prefers for her composition process to unfold orally rather than on paper, explaining that her music exists “between the barlines” and wishing for it to evolve and be performed in a way that is intimate and entirely organic. Continue reading

Suggested Listening: Suomalaista musiikkia (3 Finnish choral works) by Leevi Madetoja

I love writing SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC because it allows me to discover and share some incredible, little-known pieces… like today’s!  Enjoy three choral works — Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään/Through the Woods One Summer Night (0:00); Kevätunta/Dream of Spring (2:40); and Katson virran kalvohon/River In Your Surface Dark (6:00) — by Leevi Madetoja, performed below by the Candomino Choir, Tauno Satomaa conducting.

About the Composer:

Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) is so obscure outside of Finland, I had to use google.fi to track down a decent biography of the guy.  Madetoja was born into a poor family in Oulu, a city in Northern Finland.  His father immigrated to America to find work before Madetoja was born, and died there without ever meeting his son.  Growing up, Madetoja sang in his school and town choirs, and also studied violin, piano, and harp.  He attended the Helsinki Music Institute (today, the famous Sibelius Academy), then pursued additional studies in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin.  Madetoja worked as a conductor, teacher, music critic, and, of course, composer.  His music combines the emotional landscape of Romanticism with the simplicity of folk music, and his three symphonies draw influence from the works of perhaps the greatest Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.  In 1913, he married Hilja Onerva Lehtinen, a poet who, under the pseudonym of L. Onerva, penned many of the texts which Madetoja would set to music.  Today, the Oulu University of Applied Sciences hosts the Leevi Madetoja Piano Competition in his honor.

About the Pieces:

The three pieces included in the above video were not composed together, but rather as independent pieces.  They do, however, go nicely with each other as they all feature a cappella choir singing about scenes from nature.  The first song, entitled Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään (Through the Woods One Summer Night), is a setting of a Finnish folk song.  The text (in Finnish here, or in English here) tells the story of the narrator’s late-night stroll through the woods, in search of peace and quiet.  The narrator then encounters a young woman weeping by the shore, who shares her story of lost love.  At the very end of the song, the choir sings a repeated sort of push-pull rhythm, swelling and fading like the water in the narrator’s scene.  The music is dark and chant-like, and captures the eerie serenity of a forest at night, as well as the sadness of the young woman’s story.

The second song is Kevätunta (Dream of Spring), a setting of a poem by Madetoja’s wife L. Onerva.  (The Finnish text is available here, but you have to scroll down a ways.)  The lyrics vividly depict a beautiful spring twilight, complete with purple sky, silver stars, and April dreams — and the music is buoyant like springtime, with a surreal or whimsical quality added by the prominent children’s voices, and a haunting passage in the middle full of unnerving dissonances to emanate the darkness of evening.

Finally, the third song, Katson virran kalvohon (River In Your Surface Dark), is a setting of a poem by the Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, another native of Oulu.  The poem (in Finnish here) is from Koskenniemi’s first published collection of poetry, Runoja (1906), which focused on urban themes.  The text describes the great power of a river, and the music sounds almost hymn-like, with a straightforward melody falling into a natural pattern of phrases and pauses much like the chorales sung by church congregations.

All three works are absolutely stunning, showcasing the sheer power of the human voice.  There is something sort of mythical about this music, as though it has been sung since ancient times.  Madetoja is an extremely gifted composer who deserves more renown.  Finland loves him, and we should, too.

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