Tag Archives: Mozart

Deceptive Resolution (Part 2)

Do you remember the first movie you ever saw that changed your life? That was Amadeus for me, and in my previous post I talked a little bit about the night that I saw that movie with my Dad and brother in a rustic movie theatre almost 30 years ago. One of the main themes in the movie is the relationship between Mozart and his father, and how he was haunted by him after he was  gone. I couldn’t help but start to see parallels between the movie and my own real life.

My Dad had the soundtrack to the movie on cassette (double cassette!) and played it all the time in our house. With the exception of one piece of Hungarian music and one piece by Antonio Salieri, the entire thing was made up of bits and pieces from Mozart’s canon. A few months later, a second soundtrack was released. “EVEN MORE music from the Academy Award winning film!” boasted the paper liner. This second one was just a single cassette, but when you took them all together, you’re looking at almost 3 hours of music that seeped into my consciousness from 1985 to 1991, the year my Dad died. That’s a pretty long time to externalize this music (with regular breaks for Huey Lewis and the News, The Thompson Twins, and later, U2 of course). And even now I know these pieces and their track order with my eyes closed.

There were some standouts on that soundtrack for me. The exciting first movement of Symphony No. 25 in G Minor that plays after the THROAT CUTTING SCENE, the sweetly gentle second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor that closes out the film as Salieri is wheeled away to an uncertain future book end it. In between are snippets from The Marriage of Figaro, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Don Giovanni, among other things. Almost the entire side of one cassette is dedicated to Mozart’s Requiem, and why not? Anyone who has seen Amadeus will remember the incredible death-bed scene where Mozart is frantically trying to finish the Requiem before he dies so that he can get paid for it and is dictating it to Salieri who is perched at the end of his bed like a vulture. You can’t listen to this music without seeing Tom Hulce feverishly imagining the different parts in his mind and Salieri’s struggle to comprehend the genius of it.

But above all else, the one piece of music that stuck with me the most was the Kyrie from his Mass in C Minor. This piece of music is used effectively in two separate parts of the movie, so you KNOW it’s good. In real life, Mozart wrote this piece for his new bride to perform. Mozart hadn’t introduced her to his family yet, and their trip to Salzburg was going to coincide with the premiere of the Mass with Mozart’s wife as the lead soprano. Not too shabby a way to say, “Hey everybody, I want you to meet my wife!”. At least that’s how the story goes. You never really know what is truth and what passes for truth in those old stories. I can tell you that in Amadeus the Kyrie is played in the marriage scene which abruptly cuts to Mozart’s father crumpling up the letter which announces the marriage. Later on, there’s that scene where Mozart’s wife goes to Salieri with a portfolio of Mozart’s music to try to get him appointed to a court position. There’s that great scene where Salieri flips from score to score, amazed at how each one is perfect, without any corrections or mistakes. As a composer himself, he can read the notes on the page and can imagine what the pieces sound like, and the audience gets to hear snippets of each piece as he frantically flips the pages. It’s a bit of the soprano solo from the Kyrie which ultimately completely absorbs him, and he closes his eyes, totally surrendering to the music, and the whole collection of manuscripts slips out of his fingers and lands on the floor. Mozart’s wife looks up at him and says something like, “Is it not good?” and Salieri responds, “It is miraculous”.

It was miraculous. All of it. The Kyrie in particular, and the Amadeus soundtracks in general were my gateway drugs into classical music. Up until that point, I don’t think I really ever paid much attention to different genres of music. There was the stuff my Dad listened to (classical and some mainstream Jazz like Dave Brubeck), there was the stuff my Mom listened to (The BeeGees, ABBA, and Neil Diamond, mostly), and then there was everything else. But I never really put much thought into what music meant to me until after I saw that movie.

After watching Amadeus and being transformed by it, I developed two musical personalities. There was the outward Rock/Pop loving tastes that encompassed the stuff you’d see on Video Hits with Samantha Taylor after school each day. But then there was this other secret musical personality that I kept pretty closely hidden. This personality quietly collected and listened to classical music (and some smatterings of Jazz). None of my friends were into the type of music this second personality craved, and so I was pretty much left on my own to seek out composers and compositions on my own. My local public library was a great resource for this, as was my Dad, who I think kind of got a kick out of his elder son developing similar musical tastes as he had. Neither one of us were musical scholars or experts of any kind. He’d bring home records of composers or artists that he liked, and we would go off, just the two of us, to symphony and choral concerts. I liked having that time with him, and I think he enjoyed it too. We liked what we liked, but we couldn’t really talk intelligently about any of it. I still can’t. The furthest I would go now would be to describe myself as an amateur classical music enthusiast, and I’m okay with that.

After my Dad died in 1991, I almost stopped listening to classical music altogether. That part of me went mostly dormant for a few years. Without having someone to share all this with, what was the point exactly?

I can’t even tell you exactly what it was that brought me back to it, but I think it was a decade later, in my first year at law school. I found that listening to classical music while I studied helped me retain what I was reading much better than if I listened to nothing. Also, I made friends with a fellow student that year, Dan from Toronto, who was a huge classical music fan and we talked a lot about composers, artists and pieces that meant a lot to us. We attended concerts and operas throughout that year and just like riding a bicycle, I was back into it. The following year, Dan was accepted into the U of T back home, and I lost my study partner and my general interest in becoming a lawyer. I did, however, retain my love of classical music which I am happy to say has stuck to this day.

All of this is heading somewhere, friend. Don’t you worry.

So, a few months ago I got an email saying that this choir I sometimes sing in is doing a concert of Mozart music, and the centerpiece of the afternoon would be a performance of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The one that begins with the Kyrie, that piece that was responsible for igniting my love of classical music almost 30 years before. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to sing this piece with an 80+ voice choir, soloists and a full orchestra! Maybe somehow singing this would complete a circuit that was started all those years ago. My wife bugs me everytime I point out something coming “Full Circle”, but I yearn to find patterns and assign meaning to things that might not actually be there. “Is this another ‘Full Circle’ moment?” I can almost hear her say.

We rehearsed for two months. One of the unexpected joys of singing this piece was that I was soon introduced to the rest of the Mass. In all these years, the Kyrie was the only section I had ever heard, and I knew it so well, I found I really had to stop myself from singing along with the soprano solo when we practiced. I knew every note of her part, but I had to keep telling myself “you are not a lady you are not a lady” over and over. Our conductor is from Russia, and although he is musically brilliant, he sometimes can’t think of the right word for something in English. He was trying to describe the last few bars of the Kyrie to us. He knew the word in Russian, but he was fishing for the English term.

“You know when you think the chord is going to progress one way but then it doesn’t? It goes the other way? What is it called?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but a couple of smarties spoke up.

“Deceptive Resolution?”

“Ya ya! That’s what it is. Deceptive Resolution. You think it is going to go this way, and it doesn’t.”

Pretty much sums up life, huh?

Other stand outs for me in the Mass included the Gloria, which earwigged me as I tried to get to sleep a couple of nights in a row before the concert, and the Credo, which had really tricky diction. Not only are you trying to get your mouth around the Latin (heyo!) but the whole choir is doing these complicated rhythms in unison so there is no room for error. I was still practicing the rhythms and words right up to about 5 minutes before we took to the stage. After the unison section, the sopranos, altos and tenors go off on these musical flights of fancy, while the basses keep everyone grounded with their foundational notes and rhythm. Finally, the Hosanna. The Hosanna is filled with so many wonderful runs, something odd happened while we were learning it. The runs were so difficult that it felt like we were never going to get them right, and then when they finally clicked at one magical rehearsal, it was almost as if those notes were always there and I found myself just closing my eyes and singing the hell out of it, feeling the music rather than reading it. It’s a difficult sensation to explain, but I think those of us who sing in choirs have felt this one time or another.

But it all came back to the Kyrie for me. It was my chance to finally sing this piece and I couldn’t wait.

Before we knew it, all of a sudden it was just a few days before the concert. After eight weeks of choir only, it all was sewn together in the last couple of days when the orchestra and soloists were added to the mix. I knew one of the french horn players, and on the night of the first rehearsal with the orchestra, I was telling him how much we practiced, and he told me he hadn’t even looked at the music yet! I guess that’s the difference between an amateur and a professional musician.

The concert itself went wonderfully well, and I got a real sense that our director was pleased with how it all went too. It was an honour to finally get to sing this piece of music, especially the Kyrie. You’ll be happy to know that I kept it all inside for the soprano soloist’s parts too.. At the end of the concert I was filled with such a sense of good will and well-being. Every soprano and alto was my sister, every tenor and bass my brother. I had sung with his choir many times in the past, and I had never felt this feeling of kindredness before. There were actual high-fives, handshakes and even the odd hug. I think my Dad would have been so proud of what we accomplished that afternoon.

I came up into the sanctuary after the concert was over to collect my wife, mom and mother-in-law who braved the cold to come hear it. I wanted to get their take on how it sounded, because I knew they would be honest. “How was the balance with the orchestra? Could you make out the words? Did the sound get lost at all?” These were the burning questions I needed answered.

My wife? “My favourite part was the Russian piece you sang in the first half. Sure, the Mozart was fine too, but I’d love to hear that Russian one again.” Go figure.

My Mom? “Well that Bass soloist didn’t have very much to do, did he? Does he get paid the same as the other soloists?” I told her I didn’t know, but I’m PRETTY SURE soloists aren’t paid per sung note, but you never know.

My Mother in Law? “Did you see me waving when you walked in?” I did.

I already had my parka on and I went to sit down in the pew in front of them. As I sat down I heard a crunching noise and I reached into my pocket. It was my sunglasses! I had absent-minded put them in my pocket before the concert and now I had crushed them into pieces by sitting on them. I couldn’t save them, and then I thought back to that night that I first heard this music in a stuffy theatre in Clear Lake. The day my Dad let my brother wear his sunglasses to the movies, and I thought once again to myself: “There are no coincidences.”

Or maybe there are.

Maybe after all this time this too was just a deceptive resolution.

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Deceptive Resolution (Part 1)

In the summer of 1985, our family went camping. This was a big deal, because we were not known as campers. Not by a long shot. We would always go on a major summer holiday every year, but we would stay in motels or with family along the way. Most of the time they were road trips, but sometimes, when we were very lucky we took the train. My parents, especially my Dad, was determined that his kids would get to see as much of Canada as possible on his watch. His patriotism shone strongly and would never entertain the thought of a trip to Disneyland over a trip to Ottawa. To be fair, my brother and I were not the type to whine about not going to Disneyland either and were just as happy (if not happier) to travel to Churchill (which we did one year), so it made things easier for everyone.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my parents told us we would be taking a smaller scaled holiday that summer, and that we would be borrowing our Uncle Barry and Aunt Betty’s camper trailer. I have a number of funny memories of the four of us “city slickers” trying to make our way in nature, even if “nature” really just meant sleeping bags and a portable toilet. We found ourselves in Clear Lake, MB at one point that summer, and that is where this story really begins.

Home sweet home

I will do anything for a hotel room.

Clear Lake is the perfect place to camp if you hate camping, because there is a cute little townsite minutes from the campground where you can go and get ice cream, or shop, or do any number of non-camping things. The last time my wife and I camped there, we ended up ordering a pizza and the guy asked which campsite we were at and was going to deliver it. We were alarmed and reassured him that we would just wait for it and take it back to our camp ourselves. I mean, really. How embarrassing, right? What would the other campers think?

Clear Lake also has one movie theatre, and in that summer of 1985, it was showing Amadeus.

Amadeus won the Best Picture Oscar that year and was based on the Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name. It was a fictionalized (but maybe truthful!) account of Mozart’s life as told by a rival composer to his priest in the form of a confessional. (That last sentence was PRETTY POORLY CONSTRUCTED, but I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, right?)My parents saw this movie when it came out months before, and my Dad was super stoked to take my brother and me. My Mom was happy to have a night away from the three of us, and the movies were a civilized way for my brother and me to forget that we were actually camping, so off we went. My parents had struck up a conversation with an older couple camping next to us, and they expressed doubt as to whether this movie was an appropriate thing to show to an 11 and an 8 year old, but my Dad just said, “It’s a good story, and my boys can handle it.” This may seem out of character for my Dad, as you may remember stories of him “previewing” movies himself (like The Last Starfighter and Aliens) and deeming them “too violent” for me, or maybe you may remember the terrible moment during the opening scene of Young Sherlock Holmes when I thought he was going to march my brother and me right out of the theatre, and demand his money back.

But what you may have forgotten was that my dear old Dad also was Irish, and if you suggested that he shouldn’t do something, he just bloody well would want to do it twice as badly. This trait was passed on to me and it drives my wife nuts sometimes, but I can’t help it. As they say in The Crying Game, it’s in my nature. So we headed off to the movies: my brother, my Dad, and me. My parents had bought my brother and me new sunglasses that day, and my brother insisted on wearing his to the movie. So even though there was only a couple of hours worth of sunlight left in the day when we left our campsite, my Dad let him bring them along. Keep that in mind for later, I’ll come back to it. New sunglasses/Mozart.

The theatre today looks just about the same as it did 30 years ago.

The theatre today looks just about the same as it did 30 years ago.

Back to the movie.

Well you know what? That older couple may have had a point BECAUSE THE MOVIE OPENS WITH A PRETTY GRAPHIC THROAT SLITTING SCENE which either my Dad totally forgot about, or maybe didn’t remember how disturbing it actually was. To his credit, I think he turned to us just as it was about to happen and said, “You may want to close your eyes RIGHT NOW”, and I think maybe we did for the worst of it. Well, after that opening, the movie did settle into a lavish three hour retelling of Mozart’s life that insidiously gets under your skin. The priest is the audience’s surrogate, and while he is cheerful and upbeat at the beginning of the film, he is absolutely drained and destroyed by the final frame. I felt the same way watching it for the first time. My 11 year old self couldn’t believe that a movie could make you feel such things as Amadeus made me feel that night. I don’t think I can really adquately express what that movie meant to me after seeing it. I do remember that my cheeks and forehead were flushed, and as the cool summer evening air hit our faces as we left the theatre, I felt transformed.

Little did I know then that Amadeus, and the music from that movie, would stick with me for almost 30 years. How that movie and its music affected me will be more fully explored next time, gang. ‘Til then, let these gentle summer memories from a long ago childhood warm you as you gaze out the window at another winter storm.

Rock me, Amadeus

Rock me, Amadeus

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Everyone must do their own Pärt

The other night I was at a concert for our local symphony orchestra. The main attraction was a 12-year-old piano prodigy named Umi. She’s 12, and she has already achieved the coveted “one word name” status. I’m PRETTY SURE Madonna and Prince were a little older than that before they adopted theirs, but I’m not sure.

In any case, she was amazing and hearing her bang out Chopin’s 1st concerto with the orchestra drove everybody mad and then something happened that I’ve never seen at a classical music concert before. Umi gave us an encore. I really don’t know why this doesn’t happen more. I mean, I remember one time singing with the orchestra and we finished a major work, I can’t even remember which one, but for the sake of this blog post, let’s say it was Verdi’s Requiem. The crowd jumped to their feet and as we were all basking in the applause, I wanted, dared in my mind, actually, the conductor to shout out, “The Dies Irae, once again!” and we’d sing the damn thing as an encore. I wanted that so badly that night, but realized it just isn’t done at classical concerts, just like how you’re not supposed to clap between movements (something that still bugs me) and in fact I almost clapped after the first movement of Umi’s piece because I thought it was over. (I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course the concerto wouldn’t be just one movement, but it kind of felt over, you know?) So in the second half, partway through Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, I discretely reached for the program on my wife’s lap. She thought I was going in for a “hand hold” and there was a bit of bumping and shuffling in the dark until I could wrest myself away from her hand and come up with the program in triumph. I had to check how many movements were in the damn symphony so that I knew when to clap. So anyway: back to Umi’s encore. We were all deserved on our feet and she was bowing and then a couple of kids came out with a couple of bouquets and it was all going according to plan when Umi suddenly stuck the flowers on the top of the piano and sat down and treated us all to a short solo piece. It felt spontaneous even if it wasn’t, and I was impressed and amazed.

But despite the admiration I had for Umi and her Chopin and the orchestra’s able handling of Mozart’s Jupiter, it was the first piece of the evening that stayed with me.

It was by this guy Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer of whom I had not heard. (Not surprising. You could fill concert halls with what I don’t know about classical and symphonic music, but I’m learning.) It was called Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten. When the conductor took to the podium, I panicked a little and whispered to my wife, “where is the horn section? where are the woodwinds???” But I needn’t have worried. They weren’t stuck in traffic. This piece is only strings. Or more accurately, it is only strings and a solitary chime. The piece is very meditative and reminded me a bit of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, or maybe waves crashing on a beach. I loved it, and just settled in to enjoy it. The piece begins with the chime, barely audible, and builds to this wonderful climax that leaves the strings and chime reverbing long after the instruments have stopped playing, Britten style!

I should mention at this point that when we took to our seats, we noticed that there were three chatty older ladies sitting behind us who looked like trouble. Before the concert started one of them was yammering away, funnily enough, about a friend of theirs who talks too much. I was worried that they’d be the “ignorant asshole” types who would talk through the whole concert, but it was fine. As soon as the maestro took to the podium they tapered off. Although, a minute into the piece I heard one of them whisper to the other. “This music is going to put me to sleep!” and then, as good her word, a minute later, I could hear loud breathing which modulated into full-on snoring a few breaths later. My wife was bold enough to turn around and glare at them, and the snoring seemed to stop. The whole piece is only 6 minutes long, so it seemed a bit absurd that we would have all this drama at the get go, but you can never predict a live audience, can you? At the intermission, my wife told me that when she turned around during the Pärt piece, all  three of them were sleeping on each other’s shoulders but it was only the middle one who was actually snoring. Ah! The concert experience.

When we got home, we chatted a bit with my Mom (who was babysitting our daughter) and I told her about this unexpectedly beautiful piece at the top of the program by an unknown composer which worked it’s magic on the three ladies behind us. My Mom told us that she had the CBC on Wednesday morning at work and this incredibly beautiful piece of music came on. It was so beautiful, she said, that she had to stop working and just listen to it until it was done. She didn’t know the composer, but she caught the name of the piece: (Mirror on a Mirror). I did a quick youtube search for that piece, and guess what? (I’m sure you’ve already figured out where this is going). Yes! The composer was also Arvo Pärt! Sometimes in life I don’t think there are any coincidences.

If you’re interested to know what these pieces sound like, I’m sticking a couple of youtube links at the end of this post, but PLEASE DON’T LISTEN TO THEM IF YOU ARE OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE.

What do you think of them?

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