Tuesday, January 21, 2014

There’s gold in them thar composers!

I found Tom’s post of yesterday absolutely fascinating, basically because it was all news to me.

In high school, our vocal music teacher started a madrigal group. It was made up of the hard core musicians in the school, many of whom went on to professional careers in one form or another, and it really was a fascinating experience for all of us. Personally, I’d never heard music quite like this, being much more experienced and interested in R&B and Soul music.

The first two years, I just listened to this group from the audience, completely fascinated by the interwoven polyphony of just solo voices. You could say it was the start of my switch over to “classical” music (I hate all these sorts of terms, but they are convenient). The third year, I sang in the group and experienced this florid music from “the inside”. That was a transmogrifying moment in my musical life. (I’ve been saving up that word for months for just such a moment.)

I consequently decided not to apply to The Berklee School of Music in Boston to study jazz, but enroll in a regular bachelor’s program in university where jazz at the time was an interesting sideline of music, not a goal in and of itself. I wanted to find out more about this sort of music.

I did, and in doing it, enjoyed myself mightily. (What I learned in a “formal” music program was directly applicable to all the other kinds of music I also enjoy playing.) University forever altered music for me.

All the above is a roundabout way of getting to the subject of Tom’s post yesterday. Yes, I was very familiar with Gesualdo’s music, having sung it in high school, university and listened to a lot of it over the years. It really is quite extraordinary and Tom’s chosen example of it is perfect.

However, the main subject of his post elicited a “You’re kidding!” response from incredulous me. I had absolutely no idea that one of my favourite composers had anything like this in his character. I actually had to flip to the Internet to read accounts of Gesualdo’s personal life to actually believe what Tom had written. My wife (who also sang in the high school madrigal group for one year) had exactly the same response as I did. She’s currently on her computer reading Tom’s post and called out from her studio, “This is unbelievable!”

I guess we classical musicians inhabit a sheltered world.

Gesualdo lived in a very different time. Whenever I read about “the glorious Renaissance”, I’m also shocked just how violent people were – especially when in large crowds. I don’t have the details at my fingertips, but I remember the story of a person, a priest, I believe, who had the population turn on him. He was brutally murdered in the main square of Florence, and the crowd was so whipped up that (get ready) they ate him! Murder for sexual infidelity (almost always by the woman’s husband) was fairly commonplace, especially in the nobility.

This in no way means I excuse what Gesualdo did, but he was a product of his time. Sadly, this sort of thing still goes on far too frequently, even in North American society, but in western society, at least now it’s (generally) more shocking and society frowns on it. Back then, response was much more accepting (except by the murdered people’s family).

It’s an ongoing fascination of mine how people capable of producing art of the most sublime beauty can also be so incredibly amoral in other aspects of their lives. I suppose it’s just the flip side of being creative, as in “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, but it’s still very surprising to me.

So Tom’s post of yesterday was eyeopening. It also got my creative juices flowing in a big way. Great post Tom. Thanks! And if the seeds you planted in my imagination bear fruit, I’ll remember you in my acknowledgements!

A brief note: Many years ago, my wife took music theory and harmony lessons from local Toronto musician/teacher Robert Mundinger. (Mainly because I’d done most of her theory and harmony homework in university so she could practise more. To get into graduate school, she had to do an extensive theory and harmony test, hence the need for more lessons. I don’t think I could have passed as her at the test.)

Robert was a fascinating gentleman whose grandfather was Richard Wagner’s chef for a number of years. According to the story Robert told us, Wagner used to drink perfume, freak out, and then compose. If true, it explains a lot…


Charlotte Hinger said...

I had a short story published in an anthology, Murder to Music. But as to your mention of murders in medieval times--they were hideously grim.

I still miss the background of creepy music in old movies. We knew exactly what we were supposed to be feeling.

We could tell which one was the villain too.

Rick Blechta said...

Actually, Gesualdo was alive during the Renaissance, but a lot of medieval attitudes were still alive and well, especially that the nobility was exempt from answering in any sort of public way for their crimes. This did not mean they weren't open to revenge attacks on their person by relatives of the murder victim(s), as appears to have been the case with the Gesualdo murders.

As for movie soundtracks telegraphing information about what's happening onscreen, it is very problematic for me and will probably be the subject of a post sometime in the future. I don't want the villain's identity revealed by something in the soundtrack. The story itself should tell us that.