What Does “Classical Music” Really Mean, Anyway?

After viewing this clip, I really think you have to ask that question. A shared ethos that ElderSib and I have is that, for us, classical music can (and maybe should) be distinguished from the context in which it’s played. Which is to say, you can just strip away all the sociological detritus that has piled up on top of it, to the extent that “classical music” connotes white-tie events, inscrutable music theory, annoying piano teachers who make your fingers curl into unnatural shapes, etc. ad infinitum. Which is to say again, formality and all its concomitant, stifling rigor.

Those elements cannot be fully dissociated from classical music, of course, but the way I see it, they are but one element of the whole. And not even the most important one. Frankly I don’t know how to give words to what I do find to be the most important elements (and I don’t know that I want or need to), so I’ll blindly wave around at it by saying it is the capacity of music – the music itself – to move us, both in creating it and hearing it. We try to leave the other stuff in its rightful place and focus on that.


Good Grieg! Sibling Telepathy

This morning, Sib1 tweeted out a little Grieg for Earth Day. This is of note not only due to her alacrity with our blog, when certain other parties have apparently gone silent in a nuclear sub, but also because, unbeknownst to Sib1’s conscious mind, Sib2 was planning to write on Grieg, having joyously re-listened to his captivating “Lyric Pieces” over the weekend. Watch out for the Crazy Ivan, because Sib2 is surfacing.


I highly doubt I’ll ever need another version of the Lyric Pieces (books 1-10, seemingly randomly numbered opuses…it’s times like these when I understand why some people flee from classical music’s bizarrely byzantine Dewey Decimal System, like octopi slurping themselves into rock cracks) than Leif Ove Andsnes’s 2002 recording. For the record, that surname is 2 vowels, 5 consonants and sounds like when you’re trying to expel a mote of dust from your nostril.


Do qualitative factors matter? Andsnes and Grieg are compatriots, being both Norwegian. What’s more, Andsnes actually recorded the album on Grieg’s own piano, which has a very particular tone, at Grieg’s own villa, Troldhaugen (perhaps villas have special significance for Nordic folk: Sib1 and I fondly remember Pippi Longstocking’s fantastical Villa Villekulla). If the name conjures trolls for you, you’re right on the etymology. The name might also ring a wedding bell for some, as Lyric Piece Book 8, Op. 65: no 6 (ink, octopi, ink!), “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” is oft-used among the marryin’ kind.

Whether any of that matters or not, I think Andsnes masterfully and uniquely captured a work that receives very little due, in my limited experience, yet to my ears contains such shades of nuance, stormy emotion, lilting melody, intricate phrasework, etc., that it rightfully belongs among great solo keyboard works. Up there with Satie and Debussy. Maybe even Chopin and Schumann? Well, in the conversation, at least. There’s no small amount of nationalistic bias in the classical world when it comes to determining what is a magnum opus and what isn’t, and suffice to say that Norway’s results in such contests do not exactly mirror their Winter Olympics winnings.

But for me, this album is one that I can listen to on repeat for many days straight. Which I am in the midst of doing. Well, actually my dog (whose taste tends toward slow Bach crafted specially for canines) is doing that at the moment at home, continuing what has already been a 48-hour Good Grieg! Fest.

Here’s to Earth Day, the sun’s birthday, Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, the wondrous octopus, and of course, my telepathically connected sibling.

An update and postscriptum: here is Andsnes playing one of my favorite of the Lyric Pieces:

Sloganeering and Bach’s Butter

Earlier this year, SJ contacted me via textual transmission (we love you, Michael Sheen) and we began chatting about possible slogans for the blog. She suggested “Classical, But Not Classy.” To which I riposted, “Classical Up Your Assical” and “We Put The Ass In Classical.” Had I the heart to Google it, I’m certain none of these three would be found to be original to our peculiar little brainwaves (try “Sibling Revelry” in quotes…that will assuredly be discussed in these quarters). But I like them anyway, especially as they remind me of this gem from Tenacious D (for which I apologize in advance to my co-conspirator for the proliferation of F (major) bombs):

We here at SibRev are gearing up for the Master’s birthday on the 31st: the Kapellmeister, the careful accountant, the midnight scribe, the prolific progenitor, the mathematical artiste et philosophe, Johann Sebastian Bach! The first bit that Kyle plays in the clip above is indeed JSB. In fact, it’s a well-known lute piece that has become a staple for classical guitar, the Bourrée from his Lute Suite in E Minor. This is distinct from the short-lived Beurrée in E Minor, which involved the tricky task of playing intricate phrases on a buttered lute.

Here is the sheet music. Look at how those lines mirror each other! The chord changes are so seamless and yet so full of movement. I thank thee, Bach, I thank thee.

All of the heroes of the classical guitar have played this piece. Here is the great John Williams, with the added bonus of a picture that Tenacious D would surely approve of:

Lastly, here is a neat video showing the piece played on the instrument for which it was originally intended, the lute (no, Sting didn’t invent that):

Happy listening to the shiny golden god, Herr Bach!

Introductory Ravel-ry

A very belated but no less enthusiastic hello! This is the other half of the Sibling Revelry dynamic duo writing–the smaller but no less enthusiastic one in our official portrait. For which sitting, my lovely sister and I were remembering, I was cunningly bribed with a whole fruit bar. The technique still works to this day.

I am very excited about this blog and deeply grateful to my talented sister for doing basically (= 100%) everything to get us off and running. Or, as she so delightfully quipped today, “Offenbach and running.” I’m afraid you can expect much more of such classical punnery from these quarters. And that is certainly one of the founding principles of this blog: to share our love of classical music in all the quirky forms it takes and odd connections it makes (the title of this post, I realized, was halfway to the title of a Community episode. Don’t forget, the Greendale Music Department is flat ba-roque!) with whomever may choose to be reading. So far, it’s a select crowd indeed (fine by us, I think). I’ll note that our dear mother was the blog’s official first commenter: not at all surprising for anyone lucky enough to have benefited from the love and wisdom of such an engaging, energetic, can-do impresario extraordinaire and belle bon vivant! In other words, hi Mom.

As my Schwestli blogged, last week marked the 138th birthday of Maurice Ravel. I thought I’d start my sure-to-be-illustrious career here with some of my own thoughts on and experience of him. Of course, I’m very late in doing so; such tardiness may be an affront to a man whom Stravinsky once described as “a Swiss watchmaker.” Since I started thinking about it last week, I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard Ravel. I’ve tentatively settled on the fall of 1999. A string quartet came to my college and played the sublime Quartet in F Major. As I write I am listening to it (Cleveland Quartet), and am still so drawn into its intricate layers and melodies lo these many years later.

I can recall sitting in that small, very darkened auditorium, enraptured by what I was hearing. I had–and still have–visions of night in Paris, particularly during the fourth movement, Vif et Agité, and the Assez Vif second (hit that gas pedal, pizzicato!). Wisps of fog around the lampposts lining the quais…it’s not so much of a stretch, is it? He is “classified” as an Impressionist, after all. Yet I don’t sense the sweeping tableaux of Monet or Renoir here. That’s more Debussy, in my mind. The images the melody of the first two movements conjures for me can easily contain couples, parties, society. But there’s a sense of distance, too. Ravel has never particularly struck me as a composer whose work was of a highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal nature–acute expressions of a anomalous personage, as with so many other composers I gravitate towards. But it’s fine by me. I dearly love it. An Impressionist overall, maybe, but one of its less easily categorized adherents: perhaps Degas, or bridging the way towards the post-Impressionists and Symbolists like Seurat and Cézanne.

After that initial encounter in 1999, I studied abroad in France the first half of the next year, and Ravel was an ever-increasing feature of my musical landscape (fortified by many discussions with my roommate, whose musical ability and knowledge was and remains light years beyond mine). It was there I picked up a copy of Karajan conducting the Boléro. I was disappointed to learn Ravel later roundly dismissed the work. Sorry buddy, a hundred thousand symphonies can’t be wrong. Could anything equal its long, slow, inexorable construction? The steady drip eventually transforming into a riotous, clashing stream? That modulation towards the end led by the brass that bowls me over every time? It’s funny that artists seem so often to disregard the works that came so easily.

I dare say Ravel will be a leading character on the Sibling Revelry sitcom. For one thing, WQXR, as close as it gets to our patron saint, plays Le Tombeau de Couperin with great regularity, so he’s never far from us. For another, I seem to continually find intricate little Swiss watches made by Monsieur Ravel, with Pavane pour une Infante Défunte being the latest (I heard it one day on my local classical station (no comparison to QXR the Great and Magnificent! Jeff “Geoff” Spurgeon, we salute thee both now and forevermore! (Salinger fans may recognize this late-blooming bouquet of parentheses–be assured we have planted quite a garden full)) and listened, riveted again to the spot, until I could hear who and what it was). Here is the version I have, which happens to be Ravel himself playing. In addition (to pile unmercifully on), this period in history and art has been a source of fascination for me since high school, and that has only deepened since. Lastly, I have also loved Debussy from a young age (expect posts on the tape that introduced us two to Golliwog), and their personal and musical relationship is a worthy subject. From Schonberg’s excellent and authoritative “Lives of the Great Composers”: “their differences were vaster than the things they had in common.”

Happy birthday, Maurice. Welcome to our morning, dear reader(s). And hi again, Mom.