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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Funeral Music Playlist

February 8, 2013

Maybe I’m weird but I worry about what music is going to be played at my funeral. I don’t want some really boring organ music playing in the background while I am being eulogized. This playlist is not my personal funeral playlist but it may give you something to think about when planning for the inevitable.

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Atmosphere/ Joy Division

“Atmosphere” is another one of those prime Joy Division songs, like “Transmission” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” where Martin Hannett’s production becomes so essential to the end result that it couldn’t have been heard otherwise. Bernard Sumner’s low keyboard start and Peter Hook’s minimal, calm bass make a perfect counterpoint to the sheer, sudden power of Stephen Morris’s sudden drum parts — if anything, percussion is the heart of the song, the echo and near-tribal roll of the beats suggesting a futuristic ritual. Ian Curtis’s performance is another one of his best — one of his most controlled and calm, his deep moan suggesting both a will to continue and a sheer mournfulness. The killer touch, without question, has to be the sudden, shimmering keyboard sparkle Sumner adds after each verse, produced to sound like rays of light from the heavens, a beautiful contrast of light against the heavy rhythmic doom down below. It’s little surprise John Peel chose this song as the one to play on the air after announcing Curtis’s death — there’s a feeling of a requiem here, an awesome musical farewell.-allmusic.com

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In my room/ Beach Boys

This sensitive pop gem was one of the first Beach Boys tracks to completely break out of the surf-and-drag mold. Indeed, the lyrics for “In My Room” tackle a subject that any teenager can relate to: the feelings of safety and comfort that can be found while relaxing in the sanctuary of one’s bedroom. The melody that supports these thoughts has a lullaby quality to it, building its verse on ascending note patterns that rise higher with each stanza before the melody resolves itself with the comforting descending notes of the chorus. The Beach Boys recording brings this sense of musical ebb and flow to life in a vivid fashion thanks to an inventive Brian Wilson vocal arrangement that starts with a solo vocal at the beginning of each verse and adds on voices with each line to create a grand harmony by the time each chorus arrives. The instrumental portion of the recording achieves a similarly hypnotic effect via a backing track that layers its circular guitar riffs with the gentle strum of a harp and a steady drum beat that anchors the song. -allmusic.com

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Into my arms/ Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

“Into My Arms” is one of Nick Cave’s signature-style dark piano ballads, a love theme at the core of the lyrics, cloaked in spiritual and religious language and imagery. Accompanied only by himself on piano and Martyn P. Casey on bass, Cave plays a simple piano melody that stays rolling, barely shifting throughout except to build toward the refrain, “Into my arms, O Lord.” Questioning his own belief in God and the angels while respecting the object of his desire’s affection for them, the singer makes the sort of plaintive plea to the gods he doesn’t believe in that differences aside, love may conquer all and keep the pair together. Capturing in voice, melody, and lyric the doubts, faith, fears, and hopes that love can inspire among the faithless, he returns to the idea that truth, strength, and love are values worth striving for. This is Cave’s strength in song.-allmusic.com

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Soul meets body/ Death Cab for Cutie

For your consideration: a wildly successful indie rock band with a legion of followers on an equally successful, highly credible independent label makes the jump to major-label powerhouse Atlantic, leading to much chagrin and speculation among its fans as they awaited with bated breath for what would happen to the group. The album winds its way from one ballad to the next, with brief stopovers at moderately up-tempo numbers to help break things up a bit. And it’s this sense of resignation that either makes or breaks the album, depending on which Death Cab for Cutie is your favorite: the melancholic, hopeless romantic or the one who wears its heart on its sleeve with unbridled energy and passion.-allmusic.com

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So Long Goodbye/ Sum 41

Sporting a similar-sounding but not as politically potent title in Underclass Hero, Sum 41’s fifth studio album extends upon its predecessor Chuck’s deliberate attempt at getting serious and relevant, containing just enough garbled commentary and political platitudes to not only give the impression that the bandmembers are saying something beyond their beloved clichés, but to give the impression that they’re telling a story, creating an anthem for the “underclass hero,” the slacker who can’t be labeled as an underachiever because he never attempts to achieve. – allmusic.com

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At My Funeral/ Crash Test Dummies

Like an improbable kiddie cereal made with bran, this Canadian group gives you sprightly Irish jigs and earthy-crunchy folk music, all rolled into one addictively sweet confection—and it’s even good for you. Led by vocalist Brad Roberts’s laconic growl, this Dummies debut hops easily from the upbeat to the somber. The lyrics often sound as if they were written by the same people who see Elvis at fast-food joints. The ballad “Superman’s Songs,” for instance, is a wonderfully goofball discussion of why Superman makes a better superhero than Tarzan. While the Dummies’ mix of the silly and the sentimental, both musically and lyrically, may not suit everybody’s taste, The Ghosts That Haunt Me is one record that never gets soggy. (Arista)

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Hallelujah/ Leonard Cohen

Despite the over-saturation of “Hallelujah,” the song’s recent chart-topping success on both sides of the ocean has given Cohen some sweet revenge. “There were certain ironic and amusing sidebars, because the record that it came from which was called Various Positions — a record Sony wouldn’t put out,” Cohen told the Guardian. “They didn’t think it was good enough… So there was a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart.” Cohen can’t complain about the extra royalties either, especially considering he was forced to tour after a lengthy hiatus because his former manager made off with most of his assets. Meanwhile, we’re still surprised that Leonard Cohen is sitting around reading reviews of the superhero flick Watchmen.- rollingstone.com

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Time to Say Goodbye/ Andrea Bocelli

Sarah Brightman, who enjoyed a European hit with “Time to Say Goodbye,” her duet with Andrea Bocelli,  constructed an album beginning with that recording and continuing in kind. The characteristics of the hit — a lush, melodramatic, mock-operatic arrangement complete with a crescendo out of Ravel’s “Bolero” and soaring voices singing in English and Italian — are repeated here, whether the material is drawn from Puccini, the Gipsy Kings, or Queen. Part of PBS’ long-running Great Performances program, Concerto: One Night in Central Park features legendary Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s 2011 free concert on Central Park’s Great Lawn. With Bocelli backed by the New York Philharmonic  conducted by longtime musical director Alan Gilbert, the 17-track collection is also being made available in a deluxe edition that includes a DVD of the evening.-allmusic.com

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All Things Must Pass/ George Harrison

“All Things Must Pass” was the title song of George Harrison’s 1970 number one debut album. Like several of the songs on that record, it has a slow, almost dirge-like air, though it is executed with a stateliness that avoids lugubriousness. And, like several songs on that record, it was actually written before the Beatles had broken up. A tentative, perhaps even feeble, pass through the song was attempted by the Beatles during their troubled Let It Be sessions in early 1969; one of those takes was issued on Anthology 3. Part of the problem the Beatles had in getting to grips with the song, perhaps, was that Harrison (and the other Beatles) were beginning to write compositions that were more well-suited for them as solo vehicles than as Beatles arrangements. When it was recorded for his solo album, the song benefited from Phil Spector’s orchestral productions, with subtle interjections of brass interacting with Harrison’s high slide guitar. “All Things Must Pass” has a pleasant, though not stunning, melody and a an air of calm resignation, as well as the kind of hymnal chorus that was found in numerous Harrison works of the period. The lyrics might be a reflection of Harrison’s Indian religious beliefs, but actually there is no specific mention or allusion to Indian religion. It is a simple but direct statement on the impermanence of both good and bad times, and, in fact, in tone is not far removed from the messages of faith and reassurance found in the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” “All Things Must Pass” is more passive and resigned than “Let It Be,” however. It’s the kind of song that fits the mood in November, when the trees are getting stripped bare of their leaves, the days are getting shorter and colder, and you have to resign yourself to knowing it’s going to be tougher and tougher in those regards for months, also knowing that those hardships will pass away come springtime.-allmusic.com

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True Faith/ New Order

A tremendous single for New Order – a brilliant standalone effort and the triumphant conclusion of the peerless singles collection Substance – “True Faith” deservedly hit the charts in America, the UK and elsewhere, a marvelous valediction for a band with a core that had stuck to its guns for ten straight years. “True Faith” resisted being conventional for all that it was poppy, catchy, a radio-friendly song with its own unexpected edge. Bernard Sumner’s lyric hints at a strange desperation at play, sung with an unsure, nervous emotion (“I guess there’s just no way of knowing…I used to think that the day would never come/That my life would depend on the morning sun”). It’s the dramatic electronic drum start (memorably if cryptically matched in the heavily-screen video by mimes), Peter Hook’s strong bass line over deeper synth bass, Gillian Gilbert’s strong but not bombastic orchestral swells and keyboard chimes and more that really make everything connect, each verse building into the strong chorus with a sense of sudden anticipation.-allmusic.com