Caught in a Bad Romance: Classical Music for Doomed Lovers

February 13, 2013

Mona Seghatoleslami joins our team of music advisers. Mona announces classical music on WXXI’s Classical 91.5 weekdays from 2pm-7pm. She’s also the host of the lunchtime concert series Live from Hochstein.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day – here are some classical music listening suggestions connected to tales of ill-fated love.

This list covers all bases. If you’re a romantic, these are sweet, yet tragic tales. If you’re spending Valentine’s Day watching horror movies and thinking about tearing up paper hearts, rejoice: nothing good comes of all this romance in the end.

First, some general considerations:

1)     Pretty much any tale with “and” in the title involves a tragic pair. Romeo and Juliet. Tristan and Isolde. Daphnis and Chloe. Dido and Aeneas. Pelleas and Melisande. Can you think of any exceptions?

2)     A girl coughing in an opera means she’s doomed. This does not stop the tenors from falling in love with these women.

3)     If you’re looking for a quick “anti-valentine” fix, might I recommend a collection I just discovered at the library? The Fifty Darkest Pieces of Classical Music

4)     Or if you are willing to give love a chance, here’s a collection of Best Romantic Classics.

~Mona Seghatoleslami

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Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

I’ve played music for Romeo and Juliet on several Valentine’s Day concerts, which has always struck me as a little creepy. My favorite music for Shakespeare’s tragic young lovers is Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet.  There are sweeping and romantic melodies throughout, but the music also has a lot of edge. The section depicting the Montagues and the Capulets is particularly fierce.-M.S.

When Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony released their version of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” a decade ago, critics hailed it as the gold standard among all recorded versions of this music. Even now, there seems no reason to revise that opinion. Choosing from among several available suites prepared by Prokofiev himself, Tilson Thomas shaped a version that is both dramatically and musically complete. He and his orchestra do full justice to the bittersweet lyricism and astonishing emotional range of Prokofiev’s music.-amazon.com

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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini

Tchaikovsky also has some beautiful music for Romeo and Juliet, but my Tchaikovsky tragedy of choice is “Francesca da Rimini.” Francesca was a real woman, though her story is mostly known from Dante’s Divine Comedy. She had a forbidden love – but it also seems that she was set up. She was supposed to marry Giovanni, but his brother Paolo stands in for Giovanni at the wedding. Who can blame Francesca for falling in love with Paolo? Giovanni, for one, who murders them. They are then doomed to the second circle of hell, where they whirl in a storm, unable to touch the ground and tormented by the memory of their pleasure and love. At least, that’s how Dante tells it.  Tchaikovsky had his own reasons for identifying with tales of forbidden love.  This recording by our very own Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is really nice. (American composer Arthur Foote has also written very pretty music for poor Francesca da Rimini).-M.S.

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Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

This opera contains some famously yearning and passionate music, especially in the overture and the final song “Liebestod” (Love-death). It also is an unnecessary tragedy! In short: a love potion mixed up with poison leads to the wrong people falling in love. Tristan, Isolde, and a few others all die in anticipation of King Marke (Isolde’s fiancé) coming to break up the lovers. But it turns out the love potion had been explained to him, and he had been chasing Tristan and Isolde to give them his blessing. Too late! So tragic!-M.S.

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Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme

It is cold and dark. Solemn winter. Mimi is ill. Yet the sweet strains of love stir still beneath the sombre chords and cyclone fencing. Will love last until the thaw? Yes, yes, of course, but wait, no, still she is ill. And spring? Is it a Promised Land? No, alas, you poor bohemians. She loved and was loved, but now she must—

Securing Ji-Min Park (Rodolfo) and Takesha Meshe Kizart (Mimi) in the leads is an especial coup. Park’s is a remarkably nimble voice, mixing evenly with the rest of the “boys”, only to distinguish itself when needed with a special kind of yearning quality. Kizart is radiant and her evident familiarity with role lends her presence a reassuring serenity.-timeout.com

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Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Here are two of opera’s classic heart-breaking love stories, the kind with the coughing girl who (spoiler alert?) dies in her beloved’s arms. Puccini’s La Boheme is sometimes called the perfect opera (check out my feature with Eastman School of Music’s Benton Hess for a quick intro).  Verdi’s La Traviata is a beautiful story of love, the tension between cynicism and idealism, noble self-sacrifice, and tearful tragedy. The DVD I picked here has Rochester’s own Renée Fleming (recent winner of her fourth Grammy). -M.S.

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Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Along with yet another version of Romeo and Juliet, this recording features Hector Berlioz’s dramatic Symphonie Fantastique, an obsessive musical realization of Berlioz’s love for Shakespearean actress Henrietta Smithson. The line between real life and fiction in Berlioz’s music (and his memoirs) is a little blurry. He did win Henrietta over, and they eventually got married, and then divorced, but he remained passionately in love with (just like he remained passionately in love with all her other obsessions too.)

In connection with our purpose, Symphonie Fantastique is here because of the fourth movement, “The March to the Scaffold.” Here’s how Berlioz describes his music:

“Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.”

The music is gruesomely graphic in depicting the nightmarish scene.  -M.S.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Thanksgiving Playlist, that’s what’s cookin’!

November 15, 2012

Here are some tunes to listen to while you prepare your Thanksgiving feast!

Cornbread and Butterbeans/ Carolina Chocolate Drops

Genuine Negro Jig is perfectly recorded, balanced between the best sound this century can deliver and the rustic, throwback feel of an old-time string band in action at a picnic, dance or rent party in the ’30s. That’s the accomplishment here. The next step, if the Carolina Chocolate Drops are willing to go there, is to stretch things from being a great facsimile to being a natural extension of an ongoing tradition. That’s when revival changes into evolution.-allmusic.com

Roll Plymouth Rock/ Beach Boys

Quibbles aside, everything about this package is richly detailed, immensely pleasing, and overall a wonderful experience. All of the CD editions include copious bonus tracks, such as nine minutes of a cappella vocals (“SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”), whose beauty and fragility will help listeners realize that the Beach Boys obsessed just as much over their vocalizing as their music. Deluxe editions add essays from several angles, reminiscences from those who were there, and original artwork and photos from the period. True, no one will ever know what effect a SMiLE release in spring 1967 would have had on music or pop culture, and with the music so circular and the lyrics so obtuse, it’s likely that SMiLE would have become merely a curio of psychedelic excess rather than a work that transformed culture. But regardless, it shows Brian Wilson’s mastery of pure studio sonics and his ability to not only create distinctive pop music, but give it great beauty as well. Those qualities have inspired musicians for decades, and it’s clear they will continue to do so.-allmusic.com

Home/ Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

“Hot and heavy pumpkin pie… Ain’t nothing please me more you,” Edward and his Magnetic Zeros profess. This song has all the charm in the world, and sounds like something the settlers would have sung while caravanning along the Oregon Trail. Formed in 2007 by Ima Robot frontman Alex Ebert, the mammoth 11-piece outfit embraces “the Summer of Love” with enough period beards, fonts, and Eastern mysticism to launch a thousand “Magical Mystery Tours,” but despite all of the analog equipment and peacenik grandstanding, standout tracks like “Home,” “Desert Song,” and the aforementioned “40 Day Dream” sweep you up in their grandeur like a patchouli tornado and dare you to take your clothes off and jump in the lake with them.-allmusic.com

Thankful/ Caveman

What do an indie rock quartet and a professional wrestler have in common? No, this isn’t the beginning of a groaner, but rather a genuine inquiry about what inspired Brooklyn band Caveman to reference WWE Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware with the title of their full-length debut, Coco Beware. No immediate connections emerge upon listening, but the moods and textures of the record prove every bit as colorful as the pugilist namesake’s costumes and novelty parrot. Combining the sparkling majesty of later-era Animal Collective and the lush experimentation of TV on the Radio with the warm yearning of the Shins, Caveman cover an ambitious territory in the album’s ten-track, 36-minute run, balancing potentially conflicting elements like four-part harmonies, tribal drums, trickling keyboard, hazy guitars, and a lyrical focus on friendship and growth. Summer fades into fall with the moody, Talking Heads-meets mantra mashup “Thankful,” enveloping the mysterious refrain “Thankful all my friends with remorse” in shimmering guitar and propulsive conga drumming.-allmusic.com

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving/ Vince Guaraldi

Combining the whimsical yet elegant compositions of Vince Guaraldi and the mellow, restrained playing of George Winston, Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi is a mostly happy marriage of the composer’s and performer’s styles. On much of the album, Winston tends to tone down the breeziness of Guaraldi’s performances, opting for a gentler, reflective approach that sparkles on “Skating” and “Young Man’s Fancy,” but tends to make “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Treat Street” sound a bit washed out. However, sprightly renditions of “The Masked Marvel,” “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown,” “Peppermint Patty,” and “Eight Five Five” more than make up for the occasional lag and spotlight Winston’s virtuoso piano playing. Though it’s not necessarily intended as a best-of Vince Guaraldi collection, Linus & Lucy could certainly be used as one; however, it’s Winston’s distinctive style that makes it one of the best solo piano new age albums of the ’90s.-allmusic.com

Making Pies/ Patty Griffin

While 1,000 Kisses finds Griffin blending covers in with her own compositions for the first time, she proves to be a first-rate interpretive singer (her version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” actually improves on “the Boss”‘ original), and her own songs are splendid, especially the moving widow’s lament “Making Pies” and the moody lead-off track “Rain.” And regardless of who wrote the material, Griffin’s voice — a tower of strength capable of expressing remarkable emotional vulnerability — remains a wonder to behold. 1,000 Kisses finds Patty Griffin at the top of her game, and one can only hope we don’t have to wait four years for the follow-up.-allmusic.com

Thanksgiving filter/ Drive-By Truckers

The Drive-By Truckers are a band that likes to do things the old-fashioned way. They proudly proclaim that they record their music “on glorious two-inch analog tape,” they still think in terms of albums with two (or four) sides, and their sound is firmly rooted in the traditions of Southern rock and the blues. They also hark back to a time when rock bands made an album every year followed by a tour, and if the DBTs haven’t quite held firm to that schedule, since they broke through with Southern Rock Opera in 2001, they’ve managed to release six studio albums, a live CD/DVD, another DVD-only live set, and a collection of rarities and unreleased tracks, all while keeping up a demanding touring schedule. Any band that busy is likely to believe it deserves a rest every once in a while, and in a sense, 2011’s Go-Go Boots feels a little bit like a working vacation.-allmusic.com

Thankful/ Josh Groban

Vocalist Josh Groban delivers his first Christmas themed album with 2007’s Noel.  Once again produced by longtime “man behind the curtain” David Foster, the album features more of Groban’s  dewy, supple vocals set to Foster’s cinematic orchestrations. As per the holiday theme, these are primarily classic tunes of the season including such chestnuts as “Silent Night,” “Ave Maria,” and, of course, “The Christmas Song.” However, also included are a few lesser-known traditional songs as “Panis Angelicus” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Similarly, while most of the productions here should appeal to longtime fans of Groban’s particular classical-crossover sound, some cuts like soft rock inflected “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and the Celtic folk leaning “Little Drummer Boy” do expand upon the Groban/Foster palette in a pleasing way. Notably, also showcased here are guest appearances by country superstar Faith Hill, R&B stalwart Brian McKnight, and perennial holiday backing band the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.