Category Archives: Classical Music

Concerts, recordings, reviews, musings, you name it. I’m a lifelong classical music fan.

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18 is the kind of music that grips you by the collar and draws you into its world instantly, with its rich orchestral textures and dramatic fervor. I’ve loved it for years. Decades. Last weekend I attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1, and was dazzled by the program’s second ballet, Jiri Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to—you guessed it—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.” Many classical music purists today consider Rachmaninov’s music to be excessively sentimental, admittedly lush but too similar-sounding once you’ve heard one concerto. The tremendous popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2, in fact, seems to argue their case that it’s, perhaps, a bit lowbrow for classical tastes.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow? Certainly it’s extremely accessible to non-classical music lovers. It’s appeared in pop culture through movies, plays and songs throughout the 20th century. I myself was only nineteen when I fell wildly in love with it. The music so aptly described all those larger-than-life feelings and emotions exploding within me. I ate it up, right alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorák’s New World Symphony. In an era of LP and cassette tape music, those were three of the dozen cassette recordings I listened to incessantly. The latter two, I can’t bear to listen to anymore; they are now definitely “pop classical” to me, which nonetheless constantly fills the concert halls. But Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is different. Thirty-five years after I first heard it, I’m fascinated by its complexity and colors, its harmonic richness, its passion coupled with aching nostalgia.

I did a little digging around to find out more about Rachmaninov (and BTW, his name can be spelled with a “v” at the end or an “ff” – both are an acceptable translation from Cyrillic) before I set off to write this blog. Otherwise, how to explain why I liked this concerto so much? Did I even know why? Music with this kind of emotional depth tends to have a story behind it.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed it too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You’re a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up! 

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. To those who claim Rachmaninov is overly sentimental, too dramatic, even lowbrow? Oh, dear reader, I will have to differ. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this wonderful piece of music, in thirty-five years.

Give it a listen. Made even better by the performance of my favorite pianist, Yuja Wang. She and her performances are mesmerizing in so many ways. (Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra, July 2011)

And if you’re STILL thinking Rachmaninov’s music all sounds too familiar, a one-trick-pony kind of composer, listen to “The Isle of the Dead.” Amazing. https://youtu.be/dbbtmskCRUY

And his “Symphonic Dances.” Op. 45. Gasp! Where has this been all my life? How did this gem escape me? https://youtu.be/otJmf3pyb1E

And you’re still not tired of clicking on links and hearing about Rachmaninov’s music, you can read my blog, “Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3” HERE.

 

Was Mozart the first music pirate?

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The fourteen-year-old Mozart didn’t see himself as being a music pirate, mind you. He was just doing the thing he so excelled at, with his musical genius and photographic memory, back in the spring of 1770. He and his father Leopold were in Rome, working their way through Italy for the month as the young Wolfgang performed and studied and learned. Their timing was perfect: Rome during Holy Week. This was the only time and place you could hear Allegri’s famous “Miserere mei Deus” being sung. In the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, to be more exact, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. It was a big tradition; since 1514, a total of twelve Misereres had been chanted/sung at this service. This twelfth one, a setting of Psalm 51, composed by Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630’s for Pope Urban VIII, had become the mainstay, far and away the most popular Miserere. To attend this service and hear this music was a big deal. Visitors, musicians and travelers would arrange their schedules well in advance to be sure and catch a performance.

Why the big deal? Mystery and inaccessibility have a way of adding cachet to any piece of music, particularly one so strikingly gorgeous, at once austere and lushly inviting. The Vatican knew they had a winner on their hands with Allegri’s Miserere and, wanting to preserve its aura of mystery and exclusivity, forbade replication, threatening anyone who attempted to copy or publish it with excommunication.

But the teen Mozart was hungry for a challenge, and, well, you know Mozart. He was… spirited. Free-thinking. Not prone to doing exactly as he’d been instructed if he didn’t see the rationale behind it. So, as he and his father attended the Wednesday Tenebrae service, he listened to the incredible choral music, and after the performance, his brain set to work. Late into the night, he wrote it out from memory, note for note. And we’re talking twelve minutes of choral, contrapuntal music. There are two chorus parts, divided at times by two, to create four groups of singers. On top of that are four solo voices that create their own quartet voice. All this stuff going on, a cappella, and Mozart got it all. He went back on Friday night to give it a double check. All it needed was a few minor tweaks.

I recently got the chance to hear a performance of Allegri’s “Miserere,” in San Francisco’s Davies Hall. It was an astonishing experience. I’d used my annual subscription’s upgrade pass for a seat right in the center of the premier orchestra section, which I’d done to enjoy the piano soloist in the night’s second piece (coincidentally, a Mozart Piano Concerto). What a stroke of good luck; I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect seat for the Miserere. The singers, a joint effort of the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Symphony Men’s Chorus, lined the aisles on either side of my section. The four solo voices sang from the farthest front terrace section, above where the orchestra is usually seated. The different sections of the main choir alternated during the Gregorian Chant sections, and came together for the polyphonic parts. The result was utterly transporting.

I can’t offer Sensurround stereo listening, but pretend that’s what’s happening, shut your eyes, crank up the volume, and give this a listen. The first twenty seconds alone will just slay you.

What I love so much about this little 17th century treasure is the way it reveals and displays its intriguing beauty with such clarity. Like a really good chocolate mousse, where your mouth registers all these different flavor sensations—buttery, silky, a hint of savory, the mysterious depth egg yolk brings to the equation, rich undertones of dark chocolate brought to the forefront by sugar—all at the same moment. Each is so pleasing. The polyphonic chorus does just that. The Gregorian chant in there keeps it from being too decadent. If you grew up Catholic, that stuff is going to be very familiar indeed. In all good ways (in case you’re a lapsed Catholic and, okay, yes, I should get myself to Mass more often—and I have to say, this makes me want to go).

But let’s get back to Mozart. To his sitting there, in 1770, in the Sistine Chapel and hearing this. To the wonder the teen prodigy must have felt. The challenge rising up in him. The exact notes of the composition had been kept a secret for over 100 years, after all, like something out of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Time for the spell to be broken.

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Here’s an interesting tidbit I learned while researching this past week: there were other copies made, including one for the King of Portugal and a third copy went to Padre Giovanni Batista Martini, a highly regarded music scholar. But these non-Vatican copies were the plainest, simplest versions. You should be aware, too, that the musical ornamentation changed with every performance. The original musical transcript was, in essence, a jumping off point for even more razzle-dazzle stuff, like the lone voice hitting a breathtaking high C during the four-solo-voice section. The King of Portugal found his version to be even further simplified, nothing like the original. (Probably mostly Gregorian chant — bet he was thinking, “what a rip-off!”) He complained, apparently. And likely clammed up and went to Rome for Holy Week so he could hear the infinitely better version. (Story has it that Emperor Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, also had a copy. But wait. What was a Holy Roman Emperor’s role after the Roman Empire had gone kaputt? Leopold was born in Vienna. Became King of the Hungarians, too. Not Italian or Roman at all. I’m so confused. I’m stopping here, because all of this asks more questions than it answers.)

Back to Mozart. After Easter, he and his father continued on with their Italian travels. Later in the year, they encountered Dr. Charles Burney, a noted music historian, who, upon his return to England, published the un-publishable Miserere in 1771. To thicken the intrigue, it should be mentioned that Burney also met up with Padre Martini, who owned the third copy. And to thicken the thickening, the Mozarts also met with Martini during the course of that Italy year, when the young Wolfgang studied with him. But I don’t see Padre Martini bringing out his copy of the Miserere as a study guide. Why risk excommunication and thus hell and eternal damnation for a music lesson with a precocious teen?

So whose copy did Burney use when he published? Who can know for sure? Mozart’s hand-written copy did not survive to confirm or detract the story. As for the Pope threatening excommunication, well, it would have looked bad to accuse a priest or a King or excommunicate a fourteen-year-old musical prodigy. I’m not sure how Burney got out of it so easily, but I think by that time, the Pope sort of shrugged and said, “Whatever. Our version is still the best. Come check us out next Holy Week and see for yourselves!”

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PS: A website called Ancient Groove Music has a fascinating, in depth take on the stories surrounding Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart. If you want to dig deeper (and have the easy, cherished legend potentially stomped on) check it out HERE.

PPS: One last fascinating follow-up story, blogged by Ed Newton-Rex HERE. “In 1831, Felix Mendelssohn decided to make his own transcription — and the version he heard happened to be sung higher than originally intended (a fourth higher, to be precise). This wouldn’t have been of much consequence had it not been for an innocent mistake made 50 years later. When the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being put together in 1880, a small section of Mendelssohn’s higher transcription was accidentally inserted into a passage of the Miserere being used to illustrate an article. This mistake was then reproduced in various editions over the next century, eventually becoming the accepted version. And the result is the most famous and most moving passage of the piece — a beautiful top C sung by a treble soloist, pretty much the highest note found in the entire choral repertoire.”

San Francisco Symphony and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem

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On June 12th, forty-nine people were killed in a gay night club in Orlando, with fifty-three more wounded, in a terrorist attack/hate crime that shook the world. Hours later, James Conlon, guest conducting Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Symphony, took the mic at the start of the performance. He told us they would be dedicating the performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem to the victims and families of the massacre. He spoke about Britten, a passionate and dedicated pacifist, and then asked the audience to stand and observe a moment of silence.

We did. There are few things more powerful than pure silence in a crowded concert hall.

Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem couldn’t have been more appropriate for the occasion. Britten dedicated this 1940 composition to the memory of his parents, both of whom he’d lost in the six years previous. It was composed, as well, on the eve of World War II (ironically, initially a commission by the Japanese). There are three movements, the “Lacrymosa,” “Dies irae” and “Requiem aeternam.” In twenty short minutes, we experience a mournful funeral dirge, a rapid, harsh “dance of death” and the wrenching, emotional release of the requiem. On a good day it would stir your soul. Yesterday, it reached out, grabbed my heart and squeezed and squeezed. Particularly during moments in the second movement when the percussion sounded like gun shots. And the intention of the piece was so pure—surely from Britten as he composed it; from Conlon at the podium and the musicians playing; from those of us in the audience listening and thinking about the massacre. It wasn’t just music we were listening to; it rose higher and became bigger than the notes. It transported all of us into the spirit of what had happened. The drama, the sorrow, the chaos, the loss. The final movement, more gentle now, and amid unspeakable loss is both grief and—is it too soon to call it healing?

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People all around me were wiping their eyes. The music subsided, coming to a quiet close. The silence at the end, once again, was absolute, as powerful as the music had been. Conlon left the stage before the trickles of applause (we’d been asked to hold our applause) could morph into full-on clapping. And that, too, seemed so powerful to me. As a guest conductor, he’d earned the right to bask in applause for a job beautifully done. He chose not to take it. The musicians, too. As they rose for the pause between pieces, breaking the spell, I saw a musician wipe his eye, one more poignant, powerful thing atop another.

The Britten was a difficult act to follow, as you might imagine. But life moves on, doesn’t it? And it was time for a young artist debut, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat. It was great. It soothed and entertained. Lisiecki provided an elegant, nuanced touch, neither too heavy nor too fluff. I know all of this sounds a bit trite, but the Britten had slayed me and I could only sit there, a sodden heap, and allow Lisiecki and Mozart to gently lift me and my spirits back up. Lisiecki, at 21, seems to embody all that is young, fresh, hopeful, filled with promise. The Mozart did too. And the program’s concluder, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, was yet another ideal touch, performed with energy and warmth. It was as if the two latter selections were there to support the gravity of the Britten, and gently return us back to a cheerful, refreshed state.

There are different reactions to traumatic news and acts of terrible, senseless violence. Finger pointing, grandstanding. Retreating to defensive positions and firing verbal volleys. Citing the incident as evidence that [insert the cause/stance you despise] doesn’t work, and why we need [insert favorite cause]. But this musical response to the violence was so powerful and beautiful. It said, “we believe in art and its power to rise above ugliness, pettiness, violence. We don’t need  words to carry out a positive, resonating message.”

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How proud, how honored I feel, to be a part of a community and a city that cares deeply about classical music, diversity, tolerance, and art. One that will speak out, in the face of something so violent and hate-filled. People try to argue that classical music has lost its relevancy and is unnecessary in today’s culture. Oh, how far from true. And to Joshua Kosman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle* that Thursday night’s efforts with the same program sounded “wan and inconsequential,” I’m here to tell you, Mr. Kosman. You should have been there Sunday afternoon.

Bravissimi, and heartfelt thanks, to James Conlon, Jan Lisiecki and the San Francisco Symphony musicians. Sunday’s performance was the kind of experience I’ll never forget.

PS: Some good reading: Lisa Houston for San Francisco Classical Voice, interviews Conlon, about music, its power, the Britten piece and Britten himself HERE. And here’s another article with interesting details about Conlon and Lisiecki both from Examiner.com

*I suppose I should link Kosman’s review, although to read his grousing now seems downright petty, never mind that he is an excellent reviewer and what he heard on Thursday was what he heard on Thursday. By Sunday, we were living in a different world. So, Google it yourself if you want to read something intelligent but negative. For me, I’d rather focus on everything that was good about Sunday’s performance, which is to say, everything.

Elgar, Enigma and Easter

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While my first choice for classical music on Easter will always be Handel’s Messiah, which I elaborated on HERE last year, there are a few other wondrous, utterly memorable pieces that conjure up the same rush of powerful spirituality, a sense of Easter Sunday grandeur. There’s the Gustav Holst choral piece I’ve sung in choirs, a gorgeous SATB arrangement of “Three Days,” but let’s save that for next year. Because Elgar’s Enigma Variations contains a piece (“Nimrod”) that is is so stirring, so spine-tingling in its glorious climaxing moment, you can feel the power of the divine surging through you, all around you. Most decidedly “death has been conquered; arise and go forth” music.

I remember falling in love with this piece of music, years back. The thunderbolt of it struck me as I sat in my car in a parking lot that was situated on a hill and looked out onto the gently rolling green foothills. Beyond them, a slightly bluish-green, were the craggy, redwood-studded Santa Cruz Mountains, not yet our home at that time, but beckoning, even then. It was springtime, approaching Easter. I’d turned off the car engine but was reluctant to leave the beautiful music, that I’d listened to several time prior, but never with this kind of attention, the way it seemed to be in synch with the beautiful scenery.  And as the music built in intensity, such a rush of emotion swept over me, it would have tipped me over if I hadn’t been sitting. You know how it is, when a piece of music stirs your soul so much it hurts? It brings tears flowing up and out, only it’s a good pain, an absolutely beautiful kind. Even the tears feel mystical, other-worldly, like self-generated baptismal waters. I listened to that piece through, tears streaming out of me, and at its conclusion, I sat back, dazed, spent, filled with both gravity and joy. Wow, was all I could think. That’s some music.

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Easter likely hadn’t been on Elgar’s mind when he wrote his Enigma Variations. It was more of a game, of sorts, these fourteen variations on a theme, with each variation representing one of his friends or a situation in some way. “Nimrod” is Variation no. 9. Its inspiration, Augustus Jaeger, was a music editor and a good friend of Elgar’s. He was the best sort of friend a composer could have: he advised Elgar and wasn’t afraid to severely criticize him, if necessary. Elgar appreciated and respected the man and his words. Jaeger is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is a Biblical character (great-grandson of Noah) referred to as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” This, if you ask me, is a bit of a stretch in having a piece named after you, but I guess that’s the enigma part of the equation. Anyway, here’s the part that’s so powerful to me, and actually, I only learned this bit recently. Jaeger became the one to encourage him as an artist when he was at his lowest, helping him rise above setbacks, bouts of depression, discouragement. The deliverer of the stern criticism was precisely the person who could pull Elgar up from the depths of artistic despair.

Wow. No wonder the piece sounds like it does. It’s packed with the intensity of being on the teetering edge of despair, of hope. And then this powerful thing rises up, and up, and up, and the music grows in volume and the brass section ramps it up, and wow. It’s like God is speaking. Tell me what you think, dear reader.

Now, the Easter comparison. Okay, so I’m a Catholic, and Holy Week is always a big deal, starting with Palm Sunday, which recounts both Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, disciples in tow, beaming from ear to ear, because Jesus’ three-year ministry of healing and preaching and performing miracles is SO ramping up, going gangbusters, and here was what they’d been waiting for—the reward, the praise, the adulation, this rock-star-concert adoration of Jesus and his group. Anyway. Jesus is much more humble, of course, and starting to get a bad, bad feeling that the week is not going to end well. And sure enough, it ends horribly, with the crowd turning against him, cowed by the high priests and the mucky-mucks of the community.  Jesus is arrested, questioned, tortured, and the disciples scatter in horror, incapable of comprehending what went wrong. Three years of so much good, leading to this. Less than nothing. Watching from the distance as their hero, their Lord, their idolized teacher was crucified, right up there with a pair of common criminals.

So. That’s the somber place where the music starts. It’s a Good Friday sort of piece of music. Beautiful but decidedly elegiac. And yet, there’s a comfort within the music that starts to grow, and grow, and grow.

Because Easter Sunday happens. Because death does not conquer all, there. Because what is good, pure, powerful, eternal, will rise again to life.

Whether you are Christian or atheist, Catholic, Quaker or Buddhist (in truth I consider myself to be a hybrid of these), whether music is your religion or maybe science is what defines you and your relationship to the world, I challenge you to listen to this and tell me it doesn’t stir you in some deep, ultra-powerful way. And to sneak in a little of the theological vibe, here it is on the organ, played beautifully by Diane Meredith Belcher.

Happy Easter season (don’t forget, it’s 50 days, not just one day, which really helps me out here, since the flu delayed me horribly here in posting this) to all of you, and I hope you enjoy this piece of spiritually inspiring music, in whichever way that spirit manifests itself in you.

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