I last posted something here in March, 2020, nine long months ago. That's when I had to cancel my two remaining classes on Beethoven and Schubert. Someday soon, we will gather again and share our love of music -- in person.
In the meantime, here's something I put together about music and mood. I had been mulling this subject for a while -- how does music affect our mood and how can we soothe our spirits during difficult times? When longtime friend Bill Crane, Portland Piano International's executive director, asked me to write something for their new monthly newsletter, called Soundboard, I thought the subject of music and mood might be timely. I hope you do, too.
Those of you who have attended my classes over the years may find some of these selections familiar. Each one is magical in its own way.
Beauty That Pulls Like a River
You can fool your brain, but you can’t fool your heart. Which is why, in these difficult times, we should listen more closely to our hearts. Our brains can think for themselves.
These days, it’s dark, gray and chaotic outside. Through my window, I watch the rain and falling leaves and I can’t help looking for ways to counter the gloom. For many of us, music works best because it tunes in to our feelings quickly and easily. All we have to do is hear the first three notes of a piece as powerful as “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and our hearts calm down.
Or the opening of Mozart’s exquisite “Laudate Dominum.”
Or the serenity that unfolds in Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major.
A poem can distill beauty. A novel can describe it. But music mimics it.
As Tolstoy said, "Music is the shorthand of emotion."
Our interior world is not organized in space or time. Our feelings don’t have shape or form. They ebb and flow in a continuous blend of sensation. The meaning we feel in “Nimrod” comes from our own responses to the world — loss, endurance, memory — responses we have earned and carry with us. Music clarifies feeling, articulating our sometimes incoherent joys and sufferings, reminding us that someone else shares them.
Robert Browning knew this: “He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once.”
Our pleasure in music is immediate. It’s not the sun rising over Mt. Hood. The pleasure is interior and it transforms us for a moment. You could say it possesses us and makes us smile, move, sigh or cry. It invades us, if we let it, allowing our brains to piece together larger understandings than we can in the everyday world. We suddenly perceive reactions that go deeper than in ordinary life. For those brief moments, we seem to attain a greater grasp of the world, as if rising from the ground to look down on our ordinary experience.
We feel ourselves expand and realize we can be more than we normally are.
We know that music reduces stress because Oliver Sacks told us so. The great chronicler of brain behavior found that music is a remedy, a tonic that can lift us out of depression. Medical studies show that patients who listened to music before, during and after operations had lower blood pressure and needed less medication. The Greeks had reason to put one god, Apollo, in charge of both medicine and music.
If you’re looking for beauty — and who isn’t? — these musical gems will make you fall in love with the moment.
Let’s start with chant, that perfect reduction of music to melody, free of rhythm and harmony. Listening to chant is like creating a cloister in your living room. Or, imagine you are walking to a monastery, passing by fields and a stream. The sun warms you as you climb a hill and enter the cool shadows of the church. You settle into a pew and close your eyes.
These are the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, singing “Vir Dei Benedictus” (“Man of God, Benedictus”). The Benedictine monks live in northern Spain and sing the words, “Alleluia. Benedict the man of God was filled with the spirit of all the just; may he himself intercede for all who have made monastic profession. Alleluia.” Listen to the rise and fall of pitches as they arch smoothly and pull like a magnet to the close.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) had been depressed and was about to throw in the towel when his publisher, a man named Jaeger, visited him and encouraged him to keep composing. Jaeger talked about Beethoven, who suffered a great deal, but continued to write beautiful music. "And that is what you must do", he said, and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. The opening bars of "Nimrod" suggest that memorable theme.
“Nimrod,” from the “Enigma Variations,” captures something very British, but also universal: Noble beauty unfolding at a magisterial pace while building to an enormous brass climax.
“Nimrod” by Edward Elgar. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor.
For a little excitement, let’s look to Rossini. No one wrote a crescendo like Rossini and the Overture to “La Gaza Ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”) contains one of his best. It comes eight minutes into the overture and builds as slowly and relentlessly as the tide. The snare drum, new at the time, plays an important role.
Boian Videnoff conducts the Mannheimer Philharmoniker.
Speaking of Schubert, I turn to the last sonata for a number of reasons — mystery, profound beauty, off-beat humor, sheer, lyrical beauty. In 2015, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross interviewed Andras Schiff after the great Hungarian pianist had played it in Los Angeles.
Schubert finished the great Sonata in B-Flat Major two months before he died in 1828 and Ross describes it as “a work of vast dimensions and vertiginous depths. It has long struck listeners as a kind of premature communication from the beyond…”
Schiff himself says of the opening, “I see a broad horizon, a calm ocean. It’s beautiful how often Schubert writes about the sea, even though he never saw it. Then the trill — a very distant murmuring, maybe of an approaching storm. Still very far, but approaching. It is not a pleasant noise, this murmuring. Maybe it is also the approach of death. And then silence. What other work is so full of silence? And then the original melody resumes. This is only speculation—I cannot say what it really means.”
Andras Schiff plays Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major.
Do you know the extraordinary piece called “Spiegle im Spiegle”? This work for two instruments is by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Born in 1935, Part has been hugely influential in the style we call minimalism. "Spiegel im Spiegel" in German means "mirror in the mirror,” referring to mirrors that produce an infinity of images. The pianist plays three notes, repeated with small variations as if reflected back and forth. Leonhard Roczek is the cellist, Herbert Schuch is the pianist.
Listen as a mantle of serenity settles on us from the very first notes. Something similar happens in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, with its quiet, rippling triplets. Here, we immediately sense a great and gentle space, a meditation. Nothing is rushed. The notes unspool as if we have all the time in the world.
Let’s end with some joy and promise. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often called the Black national anthem. It comes from a poem by James Weldon Johnson, set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905. The song gives thanks for freedom, while evoking the bible’s weary and stony exodus from slavery to the freedom of the “promised land.”
Watch the conductor’s face and try to resist the musical current that pulls us along.
The Winston-Salem State University Choir, Alumni Choir and Friends perform Roland M. Carter’s arrangement, with conductors Carter and D’Walla Simmons-Burke and accompanist Myron Brown.
Our brains quiet and our hearts expand when we find beauty like this in this world.
In times like these, we turn to the things that comfort and reassure us. You know, mac and cheese, "The Great British Baking Show." Maybe mac and cheese while watching "The Great British Baking Show." Music is also a solace. My class on Beethoven, March 29, has been postponed -- as has my last class this season, April 26, on Schubert -- because of the coronavirus, but I wanted to share three Beethoven videos we would have heard. They are wonderful, of course, but they also make me smile, calm me down and give me hope for humanity.
Here is the last movement of the first piece Beethoven ever published, the Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1. The legendary Beaux Arts Trio performs. Listen to that cheeky, jumping theme.
Here is the sublime vocal quartet from his only opera, "Fidelio." This is one of the first times a composer has four characters express four different emotions using identical music. Marzelline speaks of her new feelings for a stranger, Fidelio; Leonore is anxious about the danger she finds herself in; Rocco, the loving father, sees Fidelio as the perfect match for his daughter; and Jacquino despairs that Marzelline will ever love him. The tune is 32 bars long and each singer enters after the first eight bars have been sung by the previous singer.
The singers in this Metropolitan Opera production from 2000 are Karita Mattila (Leonore), Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Marzelline), Matthew Polenzani (Jaquino), René Pape (Rocco). James Levine conducts.
Lastly, I hesitated to include this because the novelty of flash mobs has worn off, but this one is different. I had tears in my eyes, as I believe Beethoven would have had, knowing the effect his music continues to have on new generations, now going on 300 years. The video is from Sabadell, Spain, near Barcelona. The 100 performers are from the Vallès Symphony Orchestra, the Lieder, Amics de l'Òpera and Coral Belles Arts choirs.
Stay well, dear friends.
Everybody knows that Mozart was a genius — a child prodigy who wowed kings and queens with feats of keyboard magic. A whiz kid who started writing symphonies age 8.
But how did his genius work? In my next music appreciation class, we explore eight key facets of Mozart’s “divine gift.” Playful Mozart, Fierce Mozart, Brooding Mozart, Tender Mozart, Pensive Mozart, Delightful Mozart, Perfect Mozart and Genius Mozart.
Join us as we seek a closer understanding of one of the most extraordinary musicians in history.
3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, Classic Pianos, 3003 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. (503-546-5622) next to the Aladdin Theater at the corner of Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. $20 at the door.
Video: Vienna Philharmonic, Fabio Luisi, conductor
Sorry for the terrible pun. I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday and are poised for a great new year.
For my next class, Jan. 5, we look into one of my favorite composers: Franz Joseph Haydn.
Everybody knows Mozart's name, while Haydn is often a kind of also-ran. Modest, sweet-tempered Haydn was never as flashy as the wunderkind Mozart, but Haydn's music holds a special place for those who know it. With perfect technique, clear layout, rich harmonies and an impulse to surprise, withhold, anticipate and postpone, he leaves listeners optimistic, buoyant and engaged.
Join us as we dive into the best of Haydn in our continuing survey of the great composers. From the chill-inducing moment at “Let There Be Light” in his oratorio, “The Creation,” to the thrilling finale of the great “Oxford” Symphony, we will hear exactly why Haydn gives us so much pleasure.
I hope to see you there!
3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5, Classic Pianos, 3003 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. (503-546-5622) next to the Aladdin Theater at the corner of Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. $20 at the door.
Video: "Oxford" Symphony: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings Handel's "Lascia ch'io pianga" ("Let Me Weep") from the opera "Rinaldo," accompanied by Il Pomo d’Oro.
Heads up, Handel fans. My next music appreciation class, Nov. 3, dives into the grand and gorgeous music of George Frideric Handel. We will take an imaginary royal outing up the River Thames, accompanied by his "Water Music," we'll thrill to his "Fireworks" music -- but without a pavilion catching fire! -- and we will hear the most intimate arias about love and pain.
We can’t discuss Handel without mentioning Bach. Both were German Baroque composers, born five weeks apart not 200 kilometers away. Both studied and copied other composers, both used Italian and French styles, both went blind at the end of their lives and both stand as two of the greatest composers in history.
But their differences are significant: Bach came from musical family, Handel’s father was a surgeon and intended his son to be a lawyer. They both had something to prove. Bach never set foot outside of Germany, Handel traveled widely to Italy and England. Bach was a man of the church, inward-turning and studious. Handel was a man of the world, entertaining kings and queens, bold and outgoing in nature. Bach wrote for whatever performers he could scrape together. Handel wrote for the best singers of the day.
After his death, Bach’s grave was all but forgotten and his music neglected for 75 years, whereas Handel was buried with state honors among the English pantheon in Westminster Abbey. His music has never gone out of style. Bach wrote learned counterpoint, Handel used simpler expression, meant for immediate effect. He was more of an entertainer with a gift for clear sonorities and gorgeous melodies. Between them, they helped define Baroque music.
I hope you can join us!
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell, next to the Aladdin Theater in southeast Portland. $20 at the door. davidstabler.net.
A 2014 Waterfront concert with the Oregon Symphony. Photo by Randy Kashka.
We had a good crowd and a lively time sharing comments, asking questions and listening to Bach, yesterday. Thank you for attending and making the class so enjoyable. We covered a lot of ground, including why Bach is the Great Consolidator, how he expanded the possibilities of instruments such as the Baroque trumpet, how he painted words with exquisite poignancy and why his music is like catnip to arrangers.
Next class is all about his contemporary, George Frideric Handel, Nov. 3. Hope to see you there.
John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists:
Come with me as we begin a musical journey I know you will enjoy on many levels. Starting Sept. 15, I will trace the history of Western music, beginning with Bach and moving through three centuries to composers of today.
By the last class, you will know how and why each composer fits into the great, musical Milky Way.
Why a music history class? Lots of reasons.
First, we will hear the greatest music by the greatest composers. Why begin with Bach? His noble and sublime music summed up so much of what came before.
Second, by devoting one class to one composer, we can dive deeply into the music and find out what makes it stand out, how it fits into its time and how it influences composers who follow.
Third, who were these guys? What were they like? How did they live? How did they compose? How did their first audiences respond?
Fourth, we will see how music develops over time. Why does Beethoven sound different from Brahms, who sounds different from Debussy?
Fifth, we will demystify terms, revealing what all the fuss is about orchestration, harmony, texture, form, phrasing and counterpoint.
Sixth, we will learn why this music keeps turning up in concert halls around the world. Why don’t we get bored with it? Why does it still move us?
Seventh, learning this stuff will make you a better listener and better listeners enjoy music more.
Eighth, it will bring some beauty to your life. Not some, a lot of beauty.
Ninth, we’ll have fun and you’ll get to meet some wonderful people who love music as much as you do.
This will be a fascinating, and, at times, surprising, journey, I promise.
3 p.m., Sept. 15: Johann Sebastian Bach — The river to which all other composers are tributaries.
3 p.m., Nov. 3: George Frideric Handel — He embraced the full range of human experience.
3 p.m., Jan. 5: Franz Joseph Haydn — No one possessed such cheerful optimism, delightful wit and superb craftsmanship.
3 p.m., Feb. 16: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Perhaps the most extraordinary musician in history.
3 p.m., March 29: Ludwig van Beethoven — Here comes the revolution.
3 p.m., April 26, 2020: Franz Schubert — If Beethoven grabs listeners in a half nelson, Schubert's music unfolds like a dream.
Each class is on a Sunday afternoon in the Recital Hall at Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie, next to the Aladdin Theater, at the corner of Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. Cost per class: $20, at the door. No advance registration needed.
I haven't explored musical form too deeply in previous classes, but that's about to change! Don't be put off by the word "form." We won't be digging into boring names or diagrams or formulas. Instead, we're going to listen to some exquisite music to show why one certain form -- sonata form -- has enchanted and challenged composers and audiences for 200 years.
My next music class is approaching and I know you’re going to find it fun as well as useful. A bonus! I’m calling it “Musical Magic Formula."
Have you ever listened to a symphony and found yourself feeling lost? Where are we? Where are we going? What’s happening? Step by step, we'll explore why sonata form contains so much psychological power. You will never feel lost, again.
4 p.m., Sunday, April 7, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. $20 at the door.
Hope to see you there.
Three different versions of a Chopin Nocturne. One is slow and dreamy. One is fast and direct. And one is by the man who inspired the Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist.” You won’t forget them.
I'm calling my next class "Music in the Mirror" because we will explore different versions of piano pieces, cello pieces, opera arias, choruses, songs and symphonies. Some of these pieces will be familiar and some may not be, but we’ll get to know them in new ways. I thought it would be interesting to compare performances of single pieces as a way to talk about how meaning and emotion change depending on how the performer makes the music come alive.
4 p.m. Feb. 10, Classic Pianos in Portland, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Boulevard.
Here's one example: In 1944, a German officer found Wladyslaw Szpilman hiding in an abandoned building in Warsaw. He asked Szpilman if he would play something on a nearby piano. Szpilman played Chopin's beautiful Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor. The officer told him where to hide in a better place and brought him food. Szpilman inspired Roman Polanski's film, "The Pianist" and, in 1997, recorded the same Nocturne:
We had a great class of holiday music, ranging from bawdy 17th-century England, to Shapenote singing to an Orthodox carol to the ethereal beauty of Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium." Thank you to everyone who attended. If you have your own unfamiliar favorites, please share!
Here are the videos:
American composer Christopher Rouse's "Karolju":
From Cuba, "Toquen presto a fuego" by Esteban Salas (“Play fast and fiery”), from 1786:
Orthodox monks from the Sviatohirsk Monastery in Ukraine:
Shapenote singing: "Star in the East" by Norumbega Harmony, a choral ensemble organized at Wellesley College in 1976:
"The Lamb," John Tavener, 1982, sung by the Erebus Ensemble from Bristol, England:
"O Magnum Mysterium" by Beaverton-raised composer Morten Lauridsen, King's College Choir:
"Hey for Christmas," a bawdy song from 17th-century England, performed by the Baltimore Consort:
"Night of Silence: Silent Night" by Daniel Kantor/Frans Gruber, with the St. Olaf Choir performing in Norway:
David Stabler is a teacher, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa. In 2017, he rode across America with his brother.