Music Notes

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City – better known as the Met – has been in existence since 1880, and is considered one of the finest opera companies in the world.  At one time the Met toured the United States each summer in order to introduce opera to the masses.  And starting in the 1930s the Met began broadcasting its Saturday matinees on radio in an effort to attract more listeners to opera in general and the Met in particular.  Those broadcasts, along with an occasional PBS Great Performances at the Met broadcast continue today.  Matter of fact, the 2012-2013 radio broadcast series will begin on December 8, 2012 with Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, and end on May 11, 2013 with Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.  You will find a list of all the operas in the series here under “Saturday Matinee Broadcasts.”  If your local public radio station does not carry the broadcasts, you can find many classical stations on the internet that stream them.

At the site I directed you to above, you will notice that there are a number of other ways to enjoy the Met’s offerings such as a satellite radio channel, live HD performances of some of the Saturday matinees in movie theaters around the country, and special radio broadcasts of Met operas (through the Met’s own internet site) one night each week.  Be sure to check out everything while you’re at that site.

Many of these offerings are recent innovations that have come about since Peter Gelb took over the post of General Manager from Joseph Volpe in 2006.  (Volpe, believe it or not, started working at the Met as a carpenter and worked his way up.)  Gelb, who is very media savvy, was recently profiled on CBS Sunday Morning.  You can see the piece here.

By the way, since this is a blog about books, let me recommend a book that will introduce you to the stories of most of the world’s best known operas.  The book is 100 Great Operas and Their Stories: Act-By-Act Synopses by Henry W. Simon.  The list price of this paperback is $17.95, but you can find it at a discount if you look around.

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Back when silent movies began, theater owners often paid people to play music during the movies.  Since there were no movie music composers at the time, the musicians had to make up the music as they went along or play existing music – often classical.  The music reflected what was happening on the screen, but served another purpose as well: it masked the clickety-clack sound of the projector which was present in the same room where the moviegoers sat.

As time went by sound was added to the movies, and the projectors were moved into another room with a rectangular hole just large enough for the light beam to pass through onto the screen.  At that point a discussion about music in movies began.  On one side you had those who said that movie music would only distract the patrons from what was being said.  On the other side you had those who said that movie music could be used to enhance the action and dialogue by setting the mood for the various scenes.  The second group eventually won out which lead to another discussion.

Some people said that the music should be so subtle that the audience hardly noticed that it was there.  Others believed that the music should be prominent in order to make the greatest impact.  That argument has, to some extent, continued to this day, though no one would argue that movies like The Magnificent Seven and Jaws would be better without music.  In fact, some movies are remembered principally for their musical scores.

The realization that music was important lead the movie companies to form music departments, and hire composers who could tailor their music to whatever film was in production.  The music for a swashbuckler had to be very different from that for an intense love story or a murder mystery.  So who did the studio executives hire to compose such a broad range of movie music?  In large part they started with Europeans who were classically trained – people like Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, and Dimitri Tiomkin.

Many of the early composers had a few things in common: they were classically trained and only intended to write movie music for a short time before returning to their first love; some of them were fleeing Europe due to the rise of anti-Semitism; their music tended to be symphonic in nature; and, in most cases, they never got back to writing classical music.

Later, composers like Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, David Raksin, Alex North and Elmer Bernstein began to write movie music, but it was unlike that of the early composers.  It was less classical, and in the case of Elmer Bernstein and others, the music could be downright jazzy.  They were followed by composers like Henry Mancini, Dave Grusin, John Barry, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman, James Horner, and the great John Williams (whose music harkens back to the symphonic style of the early movie music composers).

I could go on and on about this subject, but it would be better if you read a book about movie music.  And, I’ve got just the book for you:  Music for the Movies by the late Tony Thomas.  This is by far the best book you will ever find on the subject of movie music for those who are not musically trained.  Thomas was superb in telling the life stories of his subjects, and explaining the fundamentals of their music, and his vignettes about the composers are priceless.  He updated his book once, but it is necessarily incomplete since he died in 1997 at the age of 69.

Thomas’ book is still in print, so pick up a copy or borrow one from your local library.  Once you read it you will never be able to watch a film again without being very aware of the music, and who composed it.  And, that is as it should be.

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I remember my reaction when I saw Peter Shaffer’s remarkable play Amadeus about Wolfgang Mozart’s life and his supposed death at the hands of the much less talented, and extremely jealous composer Antonio Salieri.  I was stunned by the story and by the genius of Mozart.  Until then he had simply been one of many classical music and opera composers.  After that, he was (and always will be to me) the greatest musical genius who ever lived.

As I write this I am listening to a four CD set about the life and works of Mozart written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann.  Once again I am struck by the genius of Mozart.  I feel like listening to anything and everything he ever composed because I am certain that nowhere else will I ever hear music of its equal regardless of which of his works I hear.  That’s how strongly I am affected by this set of CDs.

Each CD contains a narration of Mozart’s life by Siepmann, and the voices of Mozart, his domineering father, Leopold, and many of his acquaintances reading portions of letters that they wrote.  Siepmann has assembled quite a cast of talented actors to represent the men and women whose words we hear.  And after we learn a bit about Mozart we hear part of a work he composed that is related to what we just learned about him.  We hear, for instance, about how the young Mozart surprised his father one day by playing the violin – an instrument he had never studied.  Then we are treated to part of a violin concerto he composed at a very early age.  Stunning!

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite, they have also included a 125 page booklet with an article that give you a historical background of the time in which Mozart lived, another about his major works and their significance, a “graded listening plan,” a list of recommended readings about Mozart, a chronology of his life, and a glossary of important terms.  What more could you ask for?

This is one of many “Life and Works” sets produced by Naxos Records, one of the largest independent classical music labels in the world.  And, all of the musical excerpts used on the four CDs are from the label’s vast music catalog.  There are many more “Life and Works” set on composers including Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Liszt, Back, and even Verdi.  The number of CDs in each set ranges from two to four, depending on the composer.  The Amazon reviews I’ve seen of the sets are very positive.

I also have the four CD Tchaikovsky set, and I can hardly wait to get to it.  Perhaps I will be so impressed by what I hear that Tchaikovsky will take Mozart’s place as my favorite composer, but don’t bet on it.

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