Saint-Saëns

Before I started listening to classical music on the radio, I’d never heard of Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. I think most people probably don’t know who he was, which is a shame, considering he was a very remarkable composer and musician. I mean, most people know who Beethoven and Mozart were, even if they don’t like or don’t listen to classical music.

I was actually going to publish this post last week, but when I was doing some reading about him, I learnt that his birthday is actually today, so I thought that today would be better. I also learnt that he was a bit of an over-achiever, and was performing concerts by the time he was ten years old. He was also a genius of sight-reading music, and could play the most complicated pieces at first sight (something I could only dream of doing).

Saint-Saëns apparently started composing music around the age of six, but I think his best work (that I have heard so far) was one he completed in his early fifties. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 — also known as the “Organ Symphony” — is also one of my favourite pieces of classical music, and almost always catches my attention when it’s played on the radio (provided I’m not too absorbed in some task).

I actually never thought the sound of the organ was particularly pleasant, but I think this symphony would not be as good any other way. Perhaps the problem was that I’d only ever heard the organ on its own, not together with and amongst other instruments.

To me, the Organ Symphony sounds majestic, regal and uplifting, and is something I never get sick of hearing. The first few times I heard it, I thought it sounded like something from a movie — maybe Lord of the Rings or something epic like that. But there’s a certain part of the symphony that’s very distinct, and I realised it is actually used in Babe, that delightful movie about a pig who becomes a sheepdog (or sheep-pig), which you might consider epic in its own way.

If you have time, I think it’s worth a listen. If nothing else, it makes for excellent background music.

Boccherini the bold

I really like learning random facts about the composers who create the music I listen to. Last week, the featured composer on ABC Classic was Luigi Boccherini, and what I learnt about him had me grinning so much, I just had to share.

Boccherini, born in the 18th Century, inherited his father’s talent for playing cello, and showed marvellous skill from a very young age. When he was just 18, the Spanish Royal Family discovered his talents, and he gained patronage from the king’s brother.

However, his career took a turn when the king told him to change part of a composition — something as minor as removing a line from the piece. Boccherini disagreed with this suggestion, and believed (as stated by the radio presenter) that the king should “stick to ruling the country, and leave the composing to him”. In defiance, rather than removing the line as requested/ordered, he repeated it.

Even without knowing anything about the King of Spain of that time, you can imagine that he did not take too kindly to Boccherini’s modification. As a result, Boccherini was promptly sacked. Soon after, he left Madrid, and moved to the Gredos Mountains (which apparently provided him lots of inspiration for composing).

I did some skim reading through Google, and looks like Boccherini died quite poor, so it was possibly not the greatest move on his part to disobey the King of Spain, but I do quite commend his chutzpah.

The moral I took from this anecdote was that if you create something, and you have confidence in what you’ve created, you shouldn’t let anyone — not even the King of Spain — tell you that you’re wrong. Taking feedback is a necessary part of self-improvement, but sometimes you just have to stand your ground.

doubt and composition

The presenters on ABC Classic, my favourite radio station, sometimes provide little bits of information about classical composers in between the music. Since I know very little about music history, I find it quite interesting, and will often make an effort to stop and listen to what they say.

This week I learnt that Clara Schumann, one of the world’s greatest composers and pianists, experienced a lot of self-doubt about her worth as a composer, and, despite her obvious talent, not to mention her own enjoyment of composing, felt that it was not a suitable endeavour for her (or other women — such were the times back then).

She was also limited by needing to support her family (she had seven children) after the death of her husband, Robert Schumann, at a relatively young age. She spent much of the rest of her life playing piano recitals/concerts in order to stay afloat financially.

Continue reading

music lessons

I had mentioned in my last post that I was learning to play the piano. This has been going on since January this year, and was a decision made on various factors. The main reason I wanted to learn piano (or any instrument at all) was because, after enjoying listening to classical music so much, I wanted to also know how to play it. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to the desire to write being born from a love of reading.

All through primary school, weekly music classes were mandatory. For younger children, if I remember correctly, this consisted mostly of singing and learning about rhythm. From Grade 3 or 4, we were made to buy recorders, and were taught how to read sheet music. Continue reading

of the heart

I was going to write something a bit more expansive today, but I heard something remarkable on the radio this morning, and thought I’d share that instead. The below piece is called 800 million heartbeats and was composed by Stuart Greenbaum. I believe this recording – by NZTrio – is the same one I heard this morning.

What is more, or at least equally remarkable is that the title of the song comes from the purported fact that most mammals have lifespans of 800-million heartbeats. The example given by the radio presenter (who I think was paraphrasing an “analysis by the composer”, which you can find online) was that hummingbirds have very rapid heart rates, and live relatively short lives. Sloths, on the other hand, have much slower heart rates, and live longer.

But humans are the exception: 800-million heartbeats would only take us into our twenties.

I think it’s cool that someone, somewhere, has measured and calculated all this. It doesn’t really matter if this is a very useful fact or not. Maybe it doesn’t even really matter if it’s actually true or not. There’s still something romantic in it, no?

mad rush

I heard this on the radio the other day, and knew I’d heard it before. I just wasn’t sure who the composer was or what the piece was called.

I was cooking at the time, and continued to tend to the pot on the stove, but I listened intently, determined to hear the presenter give the details of the piece once it was over.

It was Philip Glass’ Mad Rush.

Incredible, captivating music for thinking or not thinking. Maybe just for feeling.