There are a lot of cushy Christmas carols. And for good reason. Who doesn’t want to hear about cute baby Jesus asleep and cooing in his manger? The perfect soundtrack for opening presents on a snowy morning. And what about Joy to the World? Fantastic. It’s a happy day, let’s be happy and sing happy songs.
Although Christmas is the season of light, I think sometimes in the midst of the cuteness of Christmas we lose sight of the real reason Jesus came – because we’re crappy people living in a pretty crappy world. Can you name the carols that these lyrics come from?
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
Dawn in our darkness, and lend us thine aid.
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
That’s straight up theology right there. Sometimes Christmas carols like to fudge things a little bit – pretty sure Jesus cried like most human babies, and we all know the three wise men didn’t actually visit him at his birth. (Also, it probably wasn’t a cold night, but Christmas! Snow!)
But these lyrics don’t pull any punches. They use real Scripture to drive home the “real meaning” of Christmas – and believe me, you’re not gonna find the “real meaning of Christmas” in a Hallmark movie (Love, Hope, Joy – cushy words that we don’t always know the exact meaning of.)
You’re going to find it in darkness. Because that’s where we all were before the birth of the Christ.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Christians don’t like to talk about Satan that much anymore. That’s kind of a polarizing name. “Oh really? You guys believe there’s this reddish-looking guy with hooves and horns sitting on your shoulder?” Satan has taken a backseat in most modern theology – why would we want to tell people they’re going to Hell to hang out with this horrible guy?
The truth is, Satan looks good to us. Why else would we sin all the time? He shows us ways that look like they lead to truth and light, but before we know it, we’re on a path of darkness. In Hebrew, a rough translation of satan is “accuser.” Satan may seem like our friend, but once Judgment day comes, he’ll make sure all of our sins are laid bare before God so we can go with him. I’m just being straight up with you. Satan does not have your best interests at heart.
Enter the Rod of Jesse. Before the birth of Christ, there was no mediator between God and His people. God was strict judgment – follow these rules and then you’ll be set free. But because He loves us and is jealous for our love, He sent us a sacrificial lamb that would put dark shadows to flight. That would stomp on the head of Satan.
Although Satan has no power, he’s still very real. And if we choose to, we can follow him willingly, whether we realize it or not. By leaving out the darkness of a pre-Christ world, we sanitize the message of Christmas. Jesus came because we are crappy. Jesus came because we deserve Hell.
But that doesn’t have to frighten us. These carols also remind us that Satan does not hold claim on our souls any longer. A tiny baby changed that entire narrative. See, the theologically intense carols can live harmoniously with the cushy ones. We can rejoice because of that deep truth. Let’s balance both instead of one or the other.
We have just entered the season of Advent. Wait patiently on the Lord; He has not forgotten you. He has done what no god has ever done and sacrificed His own blood so that we can live with Him forever.
Bid all our sad divisions cease, and be Yourself our King of Peace.
It’s a typical Hollywood trope. Teenage boy goes on search of self, navigating the trials of high school and, before his senior year is out – getting laid. Usually with the help of his friends. Antics ensue, sometimes involving hookers or porn, often involving alcohol and that one hot girl in his class. By the end of the movie, he’s transformed from a dorky, invisible boy to a full-fledged man. All because he “did the deed.”
At the risk of sounding like a Puritan, teenage, pre-marital sex is the norm in pop culture and in society in general. It’s cool to have popped the cherry, and it’s almost a competition to see how young you can get it done. Granted, this post isn’t going to be just me wailing about how all teenagers are degenerate now, throwing around their bodies to whomever will take it, but I’d just like to get that fact out of the way: when you’re a teenager, it’s not really cool to be a virgin. It’s certainly not cool to be a virgin in your 20s – and if you listen at all to pop culture, it’s really not normal either. I mean, seriously – when was the last time you watched a sitcom or network drama and two unmarried twenty-somethings didn’t have sex?
Somewhere along the line, the whole idea of virginity became funny. In movies, virgins are shown as the socially inept and often naive counterparts of their cooler buddies – usually the same buddies who are trying to get him (or her) laid. Take The 40-Year-Old Virgin for example. Just the title alone. The title is supposed to be surprising – he’s in the middle of his life and he’s never had sex? Gasp. He’s depicted as the most wholesome human you could possibly meet – including playing with dolls and, according to an IMDb synopsis, “doesn’t even watch porn or masturbate.” The audacity. While there are layers to the story, the main point of the film is that the main character is socially inept because he’s a virgin. And that’s hilarious. Once he reveals to his work friends that he’s a virgin, they immediately go on a quest to try to “fix” that, like virginity is a problem that needs to be solved.
Because you’ve never really lived until you’ve had sex, right?
I could go on with a plethora of other movies about the rite of passage that is being “deflowered.” American Pie (the ultimate buddies-get-laid comedy), The Virginity Hit, and Cruel Intentions (not necessarily a “funny” example, but one that has a little bit different implications.) A few years ago, a documentary called How to Lose Your Virginity examines virginity as a societal (and patriarchal) concept meant to supress your sexuality. The organization behind the documentary even gives out “V-Cards” to schools and organizations, which acts as sort of a punch card for every time you have a different sexual experience.
While there are patriarchal implications to virginity (a lot of times women feel more pressured to be virgins, and men feel more pressure to conquest), I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. By dismissing it as a societal construct, we dismiss some people’s deeply-rooted personal beliefs and values. Do not read “rigid moral code” here. I’m not talking Virgin Suicides.
I’ll put it this way: we all know stereotyping is wrong, right? Stereotyping racial groups, sexual orientations, and social classes is frowned upon in media. So stereotyping a virgin as being socially inept, sexually naive, and irrevocably awkward doesn’t seem very tasteful.
“Okay, Audrey, calm down,” interrupts the Internet. “Don’t you believe in expression? Why are you advocating for people to supress their sexuality? Virginity is funny because it’s such a ridiculous concept in this day and age.”
It might be for some, but for others, it’s a choice they’ve consciously made, and it’s a moral code they’ve stuck by (I know “morals” don’t really hold much weight in this day and age, but I’m going to use it anyway.) In other words, I don’t care what people do. I’m not going to tell you how to live, but I am going to tell you that some people live differently than you, and it doesn’t make them awkward or laughable. While sex isn’t such a taboo topic anymore, virginity is. People get uncomfortable (or even apologize) when they find out someone is a virgin. People think it’s weird when a boyfriend and a girlfriend haven’t had sex yet. That’s just kind of how things are nowadays, and I understand that.
My hope is that we can change the conversation about sex, especially as Christians. It’s not suppression to be a virgin. It’s not naive to be a virgin. It’s not wrong to choose to be a virgin. It’s also wrong to shame Christians who have lost their virginity. All things, even virginity, are redeemable through Christ.
I live as a virgin because I am called as a Christian to honor God in all things, including my body. I don’t always adhere to that calling. Sometimes I eat way too much nasty food or abuse my body so that I get sick. Your life is about more than just sex. Your sexuality should never define who you are. It should also not define how you see other people.
For now, I’m done spouting off one-sidedly about this. But let’s keep the conversation going.
He didn’t know why he decided to move there. Maybe it was because he wanted to prove something, prove he wasn’t a washed-out college partier or deadbeat postgrad, prove he didn’t need his parents’ money, or even their hometown. Maybe that’s why he moved into the suburbs, 26 and single.
It wasn’t the swankiest suburb he’d ever seen – no ridiculous rules about shrubbery or garden parties every Thursday night – but it was far beyond his studio apartment in the city. It was quiet. A few cul-de-sacs, a few barking dogs in the evening, a few neighborhood kids playing in the safety of their street. The city was ten miles away, a mere skyline decoration. This suburb stood between the downtown commuters and the country-club members on the south side, making it look dull in comparison. Maybe the white picket fence had chipped paint, but it was still the American dream.
When he first pulled into his driveway after his first day at the office (in an Impala, not a Lexus, which seemed to be the preferred car of his neighbors), he walked into his stranger of a house and expected to have 2.5 kids and a mid-century housewife to greet him at the door. But his only greeting was a silent stare from the stack of cardboard boxes he hadn’t unpacked yet. I should get a dog, he thought, throwing his computer bag over the arm of the couch.
He thought about dinner on his way out to the mailbox. His refrigerator boasted a box of cold pizza from move-in day and a carton of eggs. Pizza omelette, he thought, amused at his own dry wit. Well crap, I’m becoming boring already. The neighborhood was quiet. He heard the growl of a school bus a few streets down.
He looked up from his mailbox and realized his neighbor was outside. Waxing his Lexus. He was an older man, probably close to retirement, with disappearing gray hair and a friendly-looking face. His stomach hung slightly over his belted khakis in true suburbanite fashion.
He looked up again after snatching the solitary bill in his mailbox to see the neighbor looking back at him. He flashed a half-hearted smile and made his way up the driveway. He glanced again and saw the man still staring at him with a toothy grin. His blood pressure rose a little bit. What was there to stare at? He wasn’t much to look at – a little bit tall, a little bit of a neglected five o’clock shadow, crumpled green gingham. He smiled feebly again.
“Hello,” he murmured loud enough for the man to hear.
The man took the invitation to speak. “You snuck in here,” he said, his voice loud and jovial. “Didn’t even see any moving vans.”
“I didn’t have much to move,” he replied. He made to his front door but the neighbor kept talking. “Came from the city.”
“I’m Jay,” said Jay, evidently. “It’ll be good to have a neighbor again. Been awhile since the other one moved out.”
“Colin,” said Colin. “It was a great asking price, and I wanted to move out of the city.”
Jay was a man who smiled a lot, it seemed. “Welcome to the neighborhood, Colin. Good to see young folks back in this neighborhood. Seems like they all up and leave once they’re grown up.” He threw his polishing cloth over his shoulder and sauntered across the grass toward Colin. “If there’s ever a thing you need, just give us a knock. Even if it’s just for a, y’know, a cup of flour or somethin’.” Jay chuckled and Colin forced a laugh.
People still do that? Colin shook Jay’s hand. “Thank you, sir.” Why did I just call him “sir?”
Every day since, Colin would come home and Jay would be there, waxing his Lexus. Jay was not a shy man. One afternoon, Colin somehow found himself giving Jay a tour of his modest two-story. Not long after, Colin came home to find Jay mowing his lawn for him. Jay merely waved and continued on as Colin retreated inside.
As September waned on, Colin got a knock on his door one Friday afternoon. No sooner had he opened the door than Jay sailed in and plopped some items on his kitchen counter.
“Lucy makes the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever had,” he said, pushing a Pyrex dish across the formica toward Colin. “She cut these for you, too. You should be honored; she doesn’t cut her flowers for just anyone.”
Next to the dish of cookies was a vase of brilliant red roses. They almost looked like they came out of a Technicolor movie.
“Say, it’s a bit short notice, but how ‘bout you mosey on over for dinner tonight? Lucy’s whipping up some meatloaf, and I’ve got a bottle of brandy I’ve been dying to open. I’d love to share it with some company.”
“Mosey.” How quaint. He thought about pizza omelettes, and then said, “Sure.”
“How’s about six?”
Jay sailed out of Colin’s house, and Colin thought about his first few weeks as a suburban neighbor. Jay seemed like a nice enough guy, and what’s wrong with making friends with the neighbors? What do I wear to an impromptu dinner party? This wasn’t the country-club south end, so he didn’t have to worry about running out and buying boat shorts. But he didn’t want to show up in his musty work clothes, either. He found a pair of cargo shorts in a yet-unpacked box and a not-too-wrinkled polo from another. The five o’clock shadow would have to do.
“Come on in!” said Jay as he opened the door. A cat darted like an orange flash from the house and between Colin’s legs. “Don’t worry about him. He prefers being outdoors. ‘Specially when the missus is cooking.”
“You have a very nice home,” said Colin, because he felt obligated to say something about it.
“Thanks!” Jay spoke loudly even when he was inside. “Bought it in ‘89 when they were still building this neighborhood up. We were newlyweds, wanted to settle down in a nice burg. Seems like we found it, ‘cause we’re still here! Let’s go out to the patio. It’s a nice evening.”
Colin never knew he would envy someone’s lawn until he saw Jay’s backyard. It was the definition of immaculate. An oak tree stood at the far left corner, trimmed perfectly so that the boughs didn’t hang down too low or dangle into Colin’s own pitiful yard. Around it was a large bed of various flowers, not a color or petal out of place. In the center was a firepit with two matching chairs, and the first birdbath that Colin had ever seen that wasn’t covered in algae. It was guarded by a – of course – white picket fence.
“Do you have any tips for greening up a lawn?” Colin figured this was what neighbors talked about.
“Good soil.” Jay winked at him. Colin was confused, but he played along, assuming it was another suburbanite code he hadn’t gotten used to yet. As he scanned the yard, he noticed a brown patch adjacent to the flower bed. Jay must have seen his eye land on it.
“The missus is putting in another rose bush. The lady loves roses. Our last neighbor did too. Had to dig up a plot for them. It’ll look nice again soon. I hate having bare patches in the lawn.”
The screen slider opened behind them and Mrs. Jay came out with a pan in her oven-mitted hands. She was a short and somewhat dumpy woman with short brown hair, and a face as red and jovial as her husband’s. They could have been fairytale characters, thought Colin, they were so saccharine sweet. She smiled up at Colin when she saw him.
“You must be the new neighbor!” Her voice had the same lilt that every kind neighbor had. She set down the pan on the table and released her hands from the oven mitts. Colin went in for a modest handshake, but she grabbed his shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.
“Luce, don’t scare him away!” Jay laughed.
Lucy’s laugh was loud and long. “Oh, stop,” she said. “Weren’t you going to get that brandy out?”
“Ope! That’s right.” Jay disappeared into the house.
“Have a seat, Colin,” said Lucy, gesturing to a chair around the glass table. “I’m afraid it’s only leftovers tonight. If Jay had told me sooner – ”
“I’m as surprised as you are.” Colin forced a small laugh. There’s literally nothing to talk about. It gave him anxiety. Is this all suburban life is?
“Well, I hope you like meatloaf. It’s my specialty.” She looked sideways at him. “I’ll have you know our last neighbor gained five pounds before he moved out. My cooking’ll do that. But you can afford it, you’re so skinny.” She plopped down in the seat next to him. “Do you like my flowers?”
“Yes, ma’am. They’re wonderful.” Colin was glad she was a conversationalist, because he couldn’t think of anything beyond “You have a very lovely home.” I’ll have to practice my midwestern drollness, he thought.
“What are your favorite flowers?”
Colin paused, slightly taken aback by the question. She looked at him with dollar coin-sized eyes.
“That’s just lovely.” She couldn’t be real. Hallmark hired her. She was the quintessential neighbor lady.
He sighed inwardly when Jay came back with the brandy and tumblers. Jay poured Colin a stiff glass. “Let’s eat! Luce’s meatloaf is to die for. Even leftovers.”
Lucy cut into the loaf and gave Colin a heaping slice. “Dig in, kiddo.”
“She made this out of some frozen beef patties in the freezer downstairs. Can you believe it? The woman’s a genius.”
It was just meatloaf, but Colin didn’t argue. They were nice enough to invite him to share it.
“So what do you do for a living, Colin?”
“Working my way toward financial planning,” said Colin after a bite. “This is good.” he added. Lucy and Jay glanced at each other and smirked. How sweet.
Things seemed good there. So incredibly normal, Colin thought. The both of them were too quirky to be boring, but they were…normal.
Is this where I’ll be in thirty years? He thought, looking from the husband to the wife to the meatloaf. He took a long drink of brandy. Normal.
They talked. Tongues loosened with liquor, and Colin felt as though he’d known them for years. The sun went down and the solar lights glowed in the dreamy backyard. Lucy turned on the hanging lights above their heads and things felt as they should be. Colin was drowsy and at peace. Maybe this isn’t such a bad place after all. Nothing wrong with a little suburbia. If his college friends could see him, they’d call him a bourgeois sell-out. But his parents might be proud.
Jay and Lucy told him not to bother as they cleared away the dishes. Their voices wafted from the kitchen as plates were washed. Colin listened with half interest.
“You know, the freezer is running low downstairs,” said Lucy from the kitchen window.
“I know,” replied the voice of Jay beside her. “I’m on it, honey. I promise.”
Colin found himself looking at the time on his phone and yawning. He had an early morning coming. He stood up and said warm, slightly tipsy goodbyes to his hosts. They smiled warmly and clasped his hands.
“Let’s do this again sometime, son,” said Jay, leading the young man to the door. “We’d love to have you again.”
“Of course. You want me to close this behind me?” Colin stood halfway between the storm door and Jay.
“No, no, son. You’d be surprised how safe this neighborhood is. I haven’t locked my doors in twenty-five years. You’re as safe as a kitten around here.”
Colin smiled and walked out into the cricketed summer night. He didn’t lock his door when he entered the house.
October set in, and Jay and Lucy spent the last few warm evenings of the year on their patio. The evening was still bright. Lucy sipped wine, but Jay had only a glass of iced tea. They sat enjoying the company of one another. Finally Jay sighed, patted her hand, and said:
“How do you like your roses, Luce?”
Lucy smiled and her cheeks turned as red as the flowers. “They’re lovely.” Jay had planted the bush only a few days before, and the blooms were in their prime. Another bare spot now stood next to the bush, freshly dug.
“What would you like me to put there?” asked the ever-attentive husband.
Lucy thought for a second, then replied, “Daisies.” She paused. “He said he liked daisies. He had a good heart.”
“It was delicious, too.”
They heard a beep from inside the house. “Ope! The meatloaf,” Lucy scooted up to retrieve their supper. “You know, I’m really glad you stocked the freezer, hon. I was getting worried,” she called from inside the house.
“Me too, darling. I’m sure it won’t be long before another one comes along.”
Lucy came streaming out of the house with the fresh meatloaf. She was beaming down at it and gave it a strange little pat with her oven-mitted hand.
“Did you hear that, Colin? Someone will be moving into your house soon! You’ll just have to settle for the freezer. Dig in, Jay!”
Dying is kind of a scary thing to think about. Whether or not you believe in something after death, it’s the fear of the unknown that causes discomfort when we come face-to-face with the reality. Although it is scary to think about sometimes, we have Hope that we might find eternal rest after our struggles here on earth.
Needless to say, the topic of death elicits a lot of emotions, from anxiety to terror to hope to peace. When someone we love dies, those emotions hit home and death becomes very real. That’s probably one of the reasons we memorialize the dead so much. We don’t want people to be forgotten simply because they’re gone. We build memorials, recite eulogies…and write songs. Sometimes they become popular – in fact, it’s not uncommon for people to memorialize people in this way. It’s also not such a new thing.
In Roman Catholic liturgy, the souls of the dead are remembered via a requiem mass. Requiems are highly structured, including Scripture readings, chants, and hymns, with the purpose of sending the deceased soul on its Heavenly journey. There are lots of parts to a requiem mass that might get kind of boring if I list them all out, so here are the important bits (at least, for our purposes):
Kyrie eleison (KEE-ree-eh eh-LAY-zohn) translates from Latin to “Lord, have mercy.” This is a prayer of supplication for the dead person’s soul.
Sequence. The sequence (or sequentia if you’re fancy and/or Latin) is like a liturgy inside of a liturgy. Some important parts of a Requiem sequentia are the Dies irae (DEE-ess EE-reh), which translates to “day of wrath,” evoking the coming Judgment day; and the Lacrimosa, which means “weeping.” This portion also alludes to the Day of Wrath, and how “full of tears will be that day.” (I’m pointing these two guys out because I’m gonna talk about them later.)
Sanctus. This part of the requiem praises God for his holiness (Sanctus translates to holy.)
Agnus Dei (AHN-yoos DEH-ee) is a supplication to the “Lamb of God,” who “takes away the sins of the world.”
In Paradisum sings of the glories of Heaven and that the beloved’s soul will be carried thence to its rest.
In a nutshell, that’s a Requiem. I’d encourage you to look further into the liturgy. It’s fascinating.
In this Classical Crash Course, I’ll actually be tackling four different composers who have each tackled the Requiem during a different musical period. The requiem is very popular among composers because composers like that kind of structure. The libretto for their vocalists is literally written out for them already. So A LOT of composers have written Requiems. I tried to look up a number, but no one knows for sure how many have been written.
At least makes for some really good music.
From Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem: Dies Irae, aka, “Prepare to get shook cuz y’all are going to Hell”
Please tell me you’ve heard this piece before. It’s insanely popular. And it’s crazy. And it’s scary. You probably get why it’s called “day of wrath” now, don’t you? That hammering bass drum goes right to your bones. Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1874 after the death of a man he revered. Verdi wrote a lot of operas, so don’t be surprised if this sounds too dramatic to be “church music.” Verdi was definitely a drama queen. Even though the Catholic church didn’t like women singing in the liturgy, Verdi swished his fur cape on his grand staircase and said “eff you. I’m gonna write this for sopranos anyway.” And good thing he did, because it’s fantastic.
From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor:Lacrimosa aka “Like if U Cry Everytime”
If the first bit made you sad…prepare to get sadder, because like I said, lacrimosa literally means crying. Here’s the translation of the full Latin text:
Full of tears will be that day When from the ashes shall arise The guilty man to be judged; Therefore spare him, O God, Merciful Lord Jesus, Grant them eternal rest. Amen.
It’s meant to scare you. It’s a call to action for all mortals to beg for mercy. Mozart, a staunch Roman Catholic himself, didn’t finish his masterpiece by the time of his death in 1791. He died of an undiagnosed illness at the age of 35 – proof that we all should be ready for that dies irae.
But don’t worry. The Requiem isn’t all sad and gloomy. (Verdi’s might be an exception. If you listen to his Messa all the way through, you will still feel depressed at the end.) In fact, the point of the Requiem is to point us toward the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Which brings me to…
John Rutter’s Requiem: Agnus Dei aka “You’re a flower but not in a good way”
I will admit, the beginning of this piece is spooky. It’s still meant to evoke a bit of fear and trembling in the midst of a mighty God – and to remind you “man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live” (special thanks to our boy Job for these uplifting words.) But after this chilling reminder, the hope that is the Lamb of God enters the scene. Then, Rutter sort of changes the rules and adds to the Requiem (his Requiem in general is pretty unconventional) by interjecting a musical quote associated with Easter, before the choir then quotes John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.” (Bonus: Listen to Lux Aeterna if you want to go to musical heaven for six minutes. Then come back and finish reading.)
Interestingly enough, Rutter doesn’t consider himself a religious man. The incredible dynamism and heavy text of his piece would make me convert if I were a non-believer, not gonna lie. There’s so much to love about this Requiem, specifically the hope that is infused into the added text. Listen to the whole thing if you get the chance.
From Gabriel Faure’s Requiem in D Minor: In Paradisumaka “An apology to Mrs. Faure because I slept with my pianist”
Faure’s Requiem is a bit different. It’s very gentle. Early critics called his work a “lullaby of death,” but according to him, that was kind of the point:
“Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
Faure’s Requiem is not written to eulogize a specific person. I’m not sure if you can write a Requiem for funsies, but maybe he did. The finale of his Requiem, In Paradisum, sums up the work pretty well. It has almost a shimmering quality to it, with the string section providing a bed for straight-tone sopranos singing souls into Heaven. An interesting thing I learned about Faure as I researched this was that he had a way with the ladies. While he had a fairly good marriage, the boy also got around a bit. Many of his romantic relationships lasted decades and were often extramarital. He struck up many a liaison with many a pretty ingenue while married to his wife, who really didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
It’s interesting to me that most of this beautiful, sacred music came from people who are broken. If I’ve learned anything about composers in this series, it’s that many composers could notkeep itin their PANTS. Yet they still wrote beautiful music. Beautiful religious music. Sacred music.
And I think that’s because music, like other art forms, rises beyond whoever creates it. Music has the power to transcend the darkness and brokenness of the human condition and point us toward something Greater. I don’t want to turn this into a sermon, but I think music can be one of many indicators that we were created and designed. Maybe not all the composers I’ve talked about knew this, but it’s pretty evident in the amazing things they created.
So here’s my challenge to you: let your gifts, your strengths, your talents rise above you. I wrote about ten old dead guys so you could see that you have as much potential as they did. You can create a masterpiece of your own and literally change the way people do things. You can’t see it now, but people hundreds of years from now might.
And who knows? Maybe someone will write a song about you.
If you’re sick of French people, you should stop reading this right now. Because French people have been important to classical music, and I’m going to be talking about them a lot.
French people are, by nature, sad. And that plays into a) classical music in general and b) what I’m going to talk about today.
Today I will be talking about Maurice Ravel. Remember when we talked about Impressionism? He was sort of one of those guys. At least, he was a contemporary of Debussy. Like Debussy, he didn’t like the term “impressionist.” But like impressionists, he liked to do things differently. He attended the Paris Conservatory like any good little musician.
AND GUESS WHAT?
He really didn’t do anything important there. He didn’t do anything “different” or “surprising.” He just kinda did the school thing and got his homework done and then graduated. He wasn’t much of a rebel – his teachers liked him, but his music didn’t get much attention because it wasn’t…outstanding.
AND…he still didn’t get much attention. At least, not at first. Initially, this was a solo piano work (he arranged it for orchestra later.) To be honest, Ravel wasn’t a great piano player. And when he debuted Pavane, no one was a really big fan. Here’s a quote from a critic:
He is a mediocrely gifted debutant… who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.
Well, ouch. Okay. In fact, that same critic also outright called Ravel a copycat. Others still called the initial performance bumbling and clumsy; and also referred to Ravel himself as being self-possessed and aloof.
Guess who gave an eff about the critics? NOT RAVEL. He didn’t care about the shade critics were throwing. He was a perfectionist to a T, so the only criticism he would accept was his own. And thank goodness he did, because if he hadn’t been persistent, we wouldn’t have gotten hugely popular pieces like the infectious Bolero. We also wouldn’t have Ralph Vaughn Williams as an orchestral great of the 20th Century (he was one of the only musicians to be trained by Ravel.) He also kept his private life private, which othercomposers have NOT BEEN GOOD AT DOING.
Other than Bolero, Pavane is probably one of Ravel’s most well-known pieces. To be honest, it’s kind of…slow. The French translates to “pavane for a dead princess.” Kind of a downer. That title alone might make you think this is music written for a funeral or something. I actually thought that exact thing for a long time until I researched this piece. A pavane is a slow processional dance performed in royal court, especially in the Renaissance era. Ravel meant for this piece to emanate that slow, regal procession. He imagined a young princess from long ago performing this dance. He took a lot of influence from Spanish music (hence Bolero), so this pavane is a nostalgic homage to Spanish court.
But why does it sound so sad? That’s what I can’t figure out. The title is morose – no one likes to think of a dead child. And the music sounds fit for a memorial service. It’s heavy and melancholy. But this piece isn’t paying tribute to any one particular princess or person. In fact, Ravel basically titled it that because he freaking could. Here’s what he said when someone asked him about the title:
“Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout [that’s all].”
While he was a little shite when it came to naming his piece, the piece still feels really sad. Every time I hear the first few chords I get a little choky. It’s truly a moving piece of music…even though people initially thought it sucked. I think that has a lot to say about persistence. Ravel could have listened to his critics and given up. If he hadn’t wanted to put in hard work in order to be successful, we wouldn’t be reaping the benefits of his contribution to music today.
So if there’s a critic in your life calling you mediocre, do what Ravel did before Taylor Swift ever existed. Shake it off. You can even be a little snarky about it. And maybe someday George Gershwin will ask you for piano lessons and you’ll flip your hair and say, “Nah, son. C’est tout.”
Well, it might not happen exactly like that, but one can dream.
Humans are rebels by nature. If they weren’t, then teenagers wouldn’t come home with piercings in odd places and America would still belong to Britain. Also, if we weren’t such rebels, we wouldn’t have music. At least, we wouldn’t have the incredible diversity of music that we have today.
When you think of rebellion as it relates to music, you probably think of rock n’ roll, don’t you? Elvis and his hips led the way to decades of preteen girls gyrating to their record players, stoners growing their hair to obscene lengths, and rockers ripping up clothes for no particular reason (read: the 80s.) Then rock n’ roll had a bastard child and named it Metal, while somewhere in the background Bob Dylan crooned folk into existence. All of these genres were created because people wanted something different from music. They wanted it to create a new feeling for people to feel when they listened to it.
This rebellion didn’t just start with rock n’ roll, though. Jazz was the original rebel of the 20th Century. Scott Joplin’s ragtime was thought of as being way too sexy for respectable people (and also Satanic, but we’ve talked about this.) A lot of straight-laced Victorian figureheads thought it was leading to the degradation of morals in young people. (Essentially, they were saying syncopation was making teenagers have sex.)
But guess what spawned jazz?
There have been rebels in the music family tree ever since music was a thing (so, pretty much always.) But in my opinion, I think Impressionism played pretty heavily into the evolution of music as we know it now. So let me take you on a journey to explore this very odd spawn of the family tree.
Brandy, you’re a fine girl, but my first love is La Mer: Impressionism and Our Boi Claude Debussy
Once there was a French boy named Claude, and he was a hipster. This was the 1890s, the original hipster era. And he was French, the original hipster country. Like a lot of the composers I’ve talked about, Claude Debussy was very dramatic and short-tempered. He went to music school, but immediately stuck out because he played unconventional chords and styles unlike his fellow pupils. This was around the same time Impressionism was coming to its own as an art form. The art form was characterized by its accurate (and striking) use of light and small brush strokes. The painting could be as vague or as specific as the painter wanted it to be.
Debussy sort of accidentally became the frontrunner for Impressionist music. He didn’t like the term and refused to use it when it came to his music, but his music follows closely on the heels of Impressionist art. Just listen to one of Debussy’s famous piano pieces, Clair de Lune. It almost feels spontaneous, like he’s coming up with the chords and melodies as it suits him. That’s kind of the point of Impressionism – it’s not supposed to feel pre-planned, but free-flowing, like the nature it’s inspired by.
And now for La Mer. Oftentimes in literature, the ocean is characterized as a beautiful woman that sailors are fiercely loyal to. (Poets and writers are dramatic, so of course they are going to characterize it this way.) Painters love ocean and water – just refer to Monet’s piece above. If you think about it, Debussy’s La Mersounds the way we painting looks: ambient chords, sudden bursts of color from the horn section, chromatic scales illustrating the ever-changing temperament of the water.
Music critics have noted that while La Mer is described by Debussy as “three symphonic sketches” instead of simply “symphony,” but it fits well in the symphonic category – the first and third movements are broad and powerful and the middle is fast and upbeat (called a “scherzo.”) The three movements are as follows:
I. From dawn to noon on the sea
II. Play of the waves
III. Dialogue of the wind and the sea
Interestingly enough, Debussy did not spend much time by the sea while he wrote La Mer. He finished it in a hotel in England. He said that he got much of his inspiration for the piece from paintings and literature about the sea. The “sea” we hear in La Mer, as a result, is idealized and romanticized.
La Mer was not super well recieved when it debuted, but that was mostly because the orchestra didn’t rehearse super well and Debussy wasn’t very good at the whole “private life” thing (he had recently divorced his wife in order to shack up with a married woman. Kind of a no-no.) Much like his music, Debussy was spontaneous. He had several lovers during his relatively short life, and the women who lived with him said he was…difficult (and that’s being nice.)
Like I’ve said before, artists are hard to live with. Especially hipster artists. But they can crank out some darn good music, music that influences the way it’s done for decades to come.
This week, we’re going back in time. Or should I say, Bach in time, because that is an original joke I just thought of and no one else has. Also, today you’ll be getting two for one – I’m going to make you listen to TWO Baroque pieces you’ve probably heard before.
Like most eras of music, the Baroque era coincided with a wider cultural movement which started in 1600. Baroque architecture popped up in Rome and Italy at this time and was soon adopted all over Europe, especially the Catholic church. People were starting to believe that art should reflect the sacred, and vice versa. So churches started to look like this:
Walking into a Baroque church is like walking into an art museum. Look up, and there’s probably a big ol’ facade with a painting of God (usually depicted as an old white man?) Look around, and there are half-naked saints of antiquity in various dramatic, contorted positions, either in sculpture or in painting. These architects wanted to show they didn’t give an eff about the boring Reformers, who were making plain, boring churches. Baroque artists and architects would spare no expense to make sure things were elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and perfectly designed.
Baroque music took this cue as well. If you’ve listened to any Baroque music at length, you’ll notice that it’s very neat and tidy – every note fits into place (no syncopation because that is SATANIC) and it all resolves with a neat little bow at the end. Baroque composers rarely broke the rules. Like Baroque architects, the composers liked some embellishment and ornamentation, but as long as it had a good place in the music. The music was extravagant, but not overstuffed. This is also where modern opera got its start, and I’ll let you have your own opinion of that.
Enter Bach, the last child born to a German family of mostly musicians. He’s probably one of the most famous composers in the world, which is odd, because he was, by Baroque standards, quite conventional. But he also wrote a heck ton of music. He especially loved the clavier (we call it a piano now – it was a lil different back then) and the ORGAN. Who doesn’t love the organ?
“Little” Fugue in G Minor (I don’t know why “Little” is always in quotes. Is it little? Is it not little? Is it reasonably sized?)
Bach loved the fugue. A fugue is a frequently recurring musical theme that sounds at different points of a piece, usually from a different voice in the orchestra (in this case, it’s the lower and higher voices of the organ.) You can hear the theme established at the very beginning of Little Fugue, and when it’s done, the low voice takes over while the high voice goes off and has a little party on top. Although Bach continues to embellish as he goes on, you can still clearly hear the theme throughout the fugue. Sometimes it’s in its original minor key, other times it’s in a major key for a hot second.
Unlike some of the other music we’ve explored so far, Little Fugue is neither a tone poem nor a progam piece (a piece that’s specifically supposed to mean or represent something.) It’s just a frickin fun piece. And I think it demonstrates the neat and tidyness of Baroque music.
Seriously, if you’ve never heard this piece, where have you been? Do you hide under a rock every Halloween? The dark tone of this piece lends itself to being a sinister theme for many a villain in popular culture. It’s also a fugue, but the most popular part of this piece is the beginning – the toccata. While it sounds like it could be a type of pasta, it’s actually a fast-moving, lightly fingered, expertly-played piece of music. It’s like Through the Fire and Flames on expert mode. Y’all best be prepared.
What’s most suprising about this piece to me is that it might have been written by Bach in 1704, when he was still in his teens. The date of this composition is widely debated (it may have been just a few weeks/months before he died). After the dramatic toccata, we are plunged into a very dramatic fugue with lots of dynamic changes. Also, we hear a diminished seventh chord (at about 7:40) which isn’t very kosher for Baroque composers:
The fugue is a bit different from Little Fugue in that in goes through several more tempo changes and is played almost entirely in sixteenth notes. It almost sounds messier than Little Fugue, doesn’t it? Messy might not be the right word, but it almost seems a bit freer of constraints (the last seventeen measures alone go through five tempo changes.) It also ends with what is called a plagal cadence, or the “amen” cadence (if you ever sing a hymn in church and it ends with two huge “AAAAH-MEEEEEN” chords, that’s a plagal cadence.) Except its in a minor key, so it’s a creepy amen cadence, and you are left unsettled but also satisfied by what you just heard. (At least I am.)
If you don’t know how you feel about organ, listen to some organ works by Bach and make up your mind. He certainly gave you a lot to choose from. It might sound Baroque, but don’t fix it.