Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I don't often step out of my gaming related posts other than for book reviews of fiction I've just finished, but I'm going to make an exception today and talk about some classical music. Bear with me; I probably won't do this again, and then I'll be right back in either a review of a Paul S. Kemp Forgotten Realms novel, or a gaming related post by tomorrow.

See, when someone says classical music, they usually mean that in a fairly broad sense. Strictly speaking, the classical period of Western "art music" is much more specific, and is nestled between the Baroque and the Romantic period. Most my favorite "classical" music is actually "Romantic" music, i.e., belonging to the same movement of Romanticism that influenced the art, literary and intellectual world. Oddly, the Romantic period of "classical" music does not coincide well chronologically with the artistic and literary periods, being offset from them by several decades--some of Beethoven's work is considered the earliest Romantic music. The age starts at about 1815 and lasts until, at the latest, 1910.

Despite this offset in dates, the Romantic period of music really hit the same themes as literary and artistic Romanticism; a romanticisation of the past, a rejection of the Age of Englightenment and the Industrial Revolution, a celebration of nature, culture, nationalism, and emotion as opposed to the classicist celebration of reason (although the classicists were certainly guilty of romanticising the past as well; just a different era of it, typically.) Especially as the period started to wane, nationalism became a huge part of the Romantic era music,

This is what makes this kind of music fun for me as a listener; the classical masters are too clinical in their approach, and the modern composers are all over the map--some of them hearkening back to romanticism while others reject it and focus on dissonance and other practices that make the music more difficult to just enjoy. Neither the post nor pre Romantic composers (to me) really involve me in the music as a listener, and they don't take as much plain joy in the music. Ah, well.

I have been a fan of Romantic era classical music for a long time, and know many of its composers fairly well. Or, well, at least I know their best known works. A lot of my favorites are the Russians of the era: Tchaikovsky and the "Mighty Handful" or the "Russian Five." And while I've said for a long time that I like the Russian Five, I honestly only knew Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorsky relatively well, not Cui or Balarikev. And even then, I only knew their most well-known works.

For example, I had thought I was reasonably familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov, because I have the Cappricio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Orchestra, and his 1888 symphony 'Scheherazade' as well as knowing that he had orchestrated some of the works of his buddy Mussorsky (specifically 'Pictures at an Exhibition' which was originally written for the piano, not a symphonic orchestra.)

I recently discovered some other works of his, including 'The Tsar's Bride', a musical story of Ivan the Terrible. Actually, I only have the overture, since the entire work is opera, and I'm not a huge fan of opera. I also discovered his 'Fantasia on a Serbian Theme' and his first two symphonies, including the 'Antar' symphony.

It's strange to me that a stalwart supporter of Russian nationalism through music was able to write much of his most famous music about cultures other than Russian--both Antar and Scheherazade being Arabic in character. Through the strange vagaries of what nationalism meant to people 130 or some odd years ago, that was Russian nationalism, though, and specifically a rejection of the German/Austrian heritage of classical music.

The 'Antar' symphony is actually based, in many cases, on traditional Algerian and Arabic melodies that Rimsky-Korsakov then orchestrated and filled out. The result is that although possibly less polished than 'Scheherazade', at the same time it feels more authentic, which is a big part of what the "Russian Five" were always concerned about so much anyway.

Also, it slides right into my recent preoccupation with Arabian Nights and orientalism in the old-fashioned sense as an important influence on sword & sorcery in general. In fact, Antar and even Scheherazade would be perfect background music to listen to while reading Thomas Beckford's Vathek, a novel that was written at the end of the 18th century, and which was highly influential on both H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. CAS even wrote a short "sequel" to Vathek, and Lovecraft is believed to have modeled 'The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath' on Vathek with a healthy dose of Lord Dunsany for tone and feel, as well as his unfinished novel fragment 'Azathoth.'

Here's a youtube clip of the first movement of 'Antar.' I'm not sure if it will successfully launch the other three movements when it's done or not, but it will if you watch it on youtube itself.

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