Posted in Other

Article on St. Vincent’s Paris Burning in the Revisitation of the 1960s Baroque Rock

In September, I started a Singing and Songwriting course at the Point Blank Music School in London. Most of the things we learn are related to the popular music and music industry, involving how to use different software and hardware. However, I realized that I can publish an article I wrote for one of the assessments on this blog. In the article I give an exhaustive analysis of St. Vincent’s Paris is Burning in relation to the 1960s Baroque Rock genre. This is a bit different for my blog in terms of content, but nonetheless relates to my musical journey, which is why I decided to include it under the ‘Other’ category. Here is it is:

Revisitation of 1960s Baroque Rock in St. Vincent’s Paris is Burning:

Classical Music Motifs in the Evocation of Historical Themes and the Musical Destruction of the Genre.

Paris is Burning is a popular song composed by the American singer and songwriter Anne Clark, known professionally under her stage name St. Vincent. It was first released in 2006 as a part of her EP, and shortly after included in her 2007 debut album Marry Me. Revisiting the baroque rock genre that emerged in 1960s and faded by 1970s, the song stylistically differs from her rest in its distinctive use of classical music motifs in order to recall the past revolutionary and war-time eras, when the civil disorder was expressed through radical and violent means. In this article, I will identify these musical motifs and how they have been modernized and filtered through the lens of contemporary popular music, providing social commentaries relevant to our own era, as well as how they confront and ultimately destroy the baroque rock genre itself.

Beginning with a short outline of baroque rock, the genre originated in 1960s as a part of the flourishing counterculture, establishing itself, as Gulgas (2017, pp. 22-23) points out drawing from the ideas of the literary theorist Susan Sontag, by bridging the gap between the polarized binaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, through the intertextual and referential layer of incorporating classical music into rock. Furthermore, primarily characterized by what Gulgas terms ‘the postmodern nostalgia’, baroque rock is a genre where the past is musically rearticulated into the present as a type of ironic detachment and interpretation. Among the musicians who explored the postmodern nostalgia and its idea of non-linear time are the Beatles with songs such as Yesterday and In My Life, Rolling Stone with As Tears Go By, The Kinks with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, The Left Bank with Walk Away Renee, and others. All of these songs tackle the notion of memory by utilizing the musical borrowings from classical music, such as string and brass quartets, baroque counterpoint and instrumentation, etc., in order to appropriate them into an ironic, tenderly bittersweet depiction of one’s sentimental remembrance, in which the past is perpetually repeating in one’s experience of the present. Although often grouped as a baroque rock song, as I will now examine, St. Vincent’s Paris is Burning not only challenges the role of baroque rock musical strategies by slanting its representation and understanding of temporality, but it is essentially what I would call, an anti-baroque rock song. 

The opening of Paris is Burning is a short brass quartet introduction in the minor dominant region of the Ab minor key, in which the song is set, as a stately, but already dim anticipation of the tense and dark atmosphere, which is soon to emerge in a considerable discrepancy to the light mood of the 1960s baroque rock. Despite the pentatonic melody resulting from the minor dominant region, which would rather appear as the major dominant in classical music, the timbre of the brass instruments transforms the phrase into a type of rustic sound, which invokes the feeling of bygone epochs of Western musical traditions. Yet, in the last moment of the brass introduction, the listener will suddenly notice the modern manipulations added to the final notes, such as the striking, unexpected artificial crescendo and the change to a computerized timbre, suggesting the present day and its technology lurking and controlling the instrumental soundtrack. This sharp, electronically-accomplished rise in dynamics, makes the listener aware, at the very beginning of the song, of the contemporary lens through which the past is looked upon, revealing the modern sound editing processes that were concealed in the 1960s baroque rock songs. Along these lines, the instance could be seen as a musical example of the breaking of the fourth wall, an idea introduced by Brecht in regards to theatre and performance. (Brecht, 1964, pp. 91-92)

As the brass instruments and their ceremonious quaver and crochet notes fade, the soft and thin-sounding acoustic guitar takes over with the fast broken arpeggio semiquavers in high register. Having a quality similar to the fast arpeggio passages and note repetitions that would be often played on harpsichord and other plucked-keyboard instruments, the guitar nods to the age of baroque and classical music. Interfering in this texture is the hollow ringing of the hi-hats that is repeating fast rhythmical patterns, suggestive of the percussive patterns usually heard in marches, which constitute a large part of classical music repertoire, with famous examples, such as Radetsky March by Strauss and Grand March by Wagner from his Tannhauser. However, with its slow tempo, minor key and gloomy mood, Paris is Burning touches on a specific type of march – the dead or funeral march, such as Alkan’s Marche Funebre Op. 26, Ferdinand David’s Marcia Funebre, Mahler’s funeral march from Symphony No. 1 and similar. As I will describe, the dry- and cold-sounding, mechanical sonorities of the funeral march music stand in stark opposition to the lyricism of the 1960s songs I have mentioned, placing the listener in a certain historical context accompanied by the actualities of killings, executions and massacres. Yet, by being interlaced into the modernized facet of the song, these elements are also ahistorical in the sense of portraying the timeless nature of militarism and death that overshadows all history of humanity, including our own age.

The first verse begins with the appearance of the voice in the topline, as the bass kicks in with deep slow notes. The sound of the voice is very echoey, giving a feeling as if it is calling from distant past, broadcasted over an old radio or similar device. The lyrics are in epistolary form, being spoken words of an imaginary letter:

I write to give word the war is over,

Send my cinders home to mothers,

They gave me a medal for my valor,

Laden trumpets spit the sooth of power.

                                                                                                                    (St. Vincent, 2006)

While in the 1960s baroque rock songs the lyrics recollect the past in relation to personal, everyday life circumstances that have been romanticized through memory to express nostalgia, here, although addressed in first person form, the lyrics are presented in an official and factual way, as if written by a soldier figure indifferently reporting about the events from a revolution or battle, unfolding during a period of historical unrest. Stripped from the baroque rock’s ironic sensibility, the past is encapsulated not as somebody’s experience of it, but as somebody’s historical documentation of it. It’s also interesting to discern that the brass quartet already anticipated the idea of trumpets, mentioned now in the last line of the verse, showing the independence of the soundtrack in relation to the topline; it is not just a passive background pastiche for the voice to recount the past as in 1960s songs, but just like the topline, it has its own active temporality in the construction of past.

The pre-chorus begins with the thickening of the texture and louder dynamics, as the thin, repeated guitar notes are replaced by the stronger timbre of the computer-generated, siren-like ostinato, and the hi-hats are simultaneously taken over by the kick drum, joined in with the bass, in order to fortify the dark pulsation of the funeral march. Meanwhile, the voice switches from the deep to middle register, no longer being echoey, but ghostly in quality with the added sound effects, illustrating the universal deception of the sovereign forces in war and revolution, delineated by the lyrics that allude to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “sleep while I slip, poison in your ear.” After this, with the ascending low-register guitar notes reminding of the lute, the short instrumental break climbs into the chorus, which alternates in texture from the unison playing of topline’s melody by the lute-like guitar, to the even stronger thumping of the funeral march pulse. At the same time, the voice became percussive in the articulation of the words, alternating between the chest and head voice, the latter implying the operatic and classical music singing styles.

At this point, the lyrics talk about the burning of Paris, which as Bentley (2016) suggests, isn’t connected to any concrete historical destructions of the city. Instead, I would propose that the song is using the imagery of Paris burning as a metaphor for the revolutionary turmoil that slowly swept the globe, which began with the 18th-century uprisings in France. Furthermore, the song also reflects upon the contemporary decades, considering their Modernistic and Postmodernistic tendencies in society and art, which are, as Larrissy (1999, p. 1) described, ultimately linked to Romanticism and its ideologies – the driving forces of the Age of Revolution. Whereas the approach of the 1960s baroque rock musicians to the classical music motifs was to provide deconstruction of the everyday, turning it into an environment where the fabric of one’s present and its familiarity are disturbed by memory, epitomized in the sounds of the past (Gulgas, 2017, pp. 24-25), the motifs are appropriated only as neoclassical stylistic flourishes. St Vincent responds to this, by using the classical music motifs in combination with the visions of Parisian revolt and destruction from the standpoint of New Romanticism, in order to demonstrate a larger historical fabric, one where the everyday is a “transition from a place not yet left behind, to another space it has not yet entered, and probably never will” (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010), an allegory for the state of our generation.

The above can be best recognized in the structural skepticism which occurs at the end of the chorus, where the topline introduces a semiotic proposal that the funeral march is instead a “black waltz”. In this exact instant, the listener begins to question whether the pulsations heard are actually a part of the word-painting – oom pah pah rhythm of the dance. As such, the pulsations illustrate the concept of the ‘familiar’ that at the same time has the ‘aura of the unfamiliar’, highlighted as an important feature of New Romanticism. (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010) However, the listener has been deceived, since the funeral march is the rhythm that carries on into the instrumental break, whose descending baroque sequential passage has been modernized into a fiery sound of the electric violin, bringing forth the repetition of the verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Yet, after the second chorus, we are once again cheated, since the oom pah pahs of the waltz actually do take over this time, changing the time signature and accelerating the tempo of the song from the stately 4/4 of the funeral march into the fast 3/8.

The outro waltz is the point of culmination of the whole song, initiating a sense of increasing agitation and anxiety through its whirling repetitiveness of the ostinato rhythm. Accompanied by constant gradations, such as the incorporation of the tambourines and claps, fast quaver notes of the fiery electric violin, countermelody of the electric guitar, and other elements, the texture, dynamics and musical motifs are more and more intensified, until the complete breakdown in fortissimo where the song ends. Waltz is an interesting choice, since as early as its emergence, it carried ‘revolutionary implications’ in contrast to the sophisticated minuet of the court, featuring the controversial close embrace of the couples and the continuous circular turning, which the early writers criticized to have induced vertigo and nervous symptoms. (Yaraman, 2002, p.5; pp. 7-9) Furthermore, the waltz in Paris is Burning is also comparable to the ‘dance-destruction trajectory’ (Mawer, 2011, p. 65) explored by the 20th-century classical composer, Maurice Ravel. Besides his famous Bolero, Ravel also tests the waltz genre itself in his La Valse, eliminating the sentimentalism of the dance in order to accentuate its machine-like nature, elevating “musical materials to their breaking-point”, as the mechanism and automation of endless circularity and ostinato prove to be cataclysmic. (Mawer, 2011, pp.150-155) Within this frame of reference, I would assert that Paris is Burning uses its black waltz to destroy the baroque rock genre, with the lyrics and the rising musical calamity painting an utter defeat:

Dance poor people, dance and drown,

Dance fair Paris to the ground.

                                                                          (St. Vincent, 2006)

Ending with “Dance fair Paris, ashes now,” the frantic waltz torments the listener with the nightmarish connotations of nostalgia and the destructive power of its fantasy, while the imagery of complete annihilation of those dancing the waltz attests to New Romanticism’s “finite with the appearance of the infinite” (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010) that haunts the twenty-first century. With the repetition of the brass introduction that fades with ritenuto into complete softness, the song concludes with the removal of the lens through which we observed the past. There is a sense of relief in the silence after the song’s ending, as the listener returns to the present-day and its ‘impossible possibility of another here and now.’ (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010)

In conclusion, despite often being categorized as a baroque rock song, St Vincent’s Paris is Burning actually epitomizes the antithesis of the 1960s genre in its distinctive approach to the classical music motifs. From its musical breaking of the fourth wall that makes the listener aware of the present day’s technology mediating the experience of the past, the soundtrack that has been liberated from the topline to have its own temporality in the construction of such past, to the destruction of the postmodern nostalgia in the modernized use of the borrowed classical music motifs, as well as the structural skepticism that occurs all throughout, the song offers a New Romantic perspective in the revisitation of the genre, wrecking it into the chaotic imagery of the Parisian ruins. As a result, despite the recent revivals of the genre in bands such as the Divine Comedy, Paris is Burning, once and for all, musically dismantled and sabotaged the main ideas of baroque rock, whose ironic sentimentality towards the commonplace and the quotidian in the form of the neoclassical soundscape has, just like the Paris in the song, been smoldered into ashes.


Bentley, D., 2016. CSFTD #28: St. Vincent – Paris is Burning. Too many blogs, [blog] 11 April. Available at: [Accessed 16 October 2018]

Brecht, B., 1964. Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. In: Willett, J. ed. and trans., Brecht on Theatre. New York: Hill & Wang.

Gulgas, S., 2017. Looking Forward to the Past: Baroque Rock’s Postmodern Nostalgia and the Politics of Memory. Ph. D. University of Pittsburgh. Available at: [Accessed 18 October 2018]

Larrissy, E. ed., 1999. Romanticism and Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mawer, D. ed., 2011. The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. [Online] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at: [Accessed 24 October 2018]

Notes on Metamodernism, 2010. New Romanticism. Notes on Metamodernism,


9 August. Available at: [Accessed 21 October 2018]

St. Vincent, 2006. Paris is Burning. In: Paris is Burning (2006) [EP] Nail Polish Manifesto Music.; Marry Me (2007) [CD] Beggars Banquet.

Yaraman, S. H., 2002. Revolving Embrace: The Waltz as Sex, Steps, and Sound. New York: Pendragon Press.

Posted in Project 3: Exploring Chromaticism

Research point 2.3 – Globalization and Music

This research point is about writing 500 words on globalization with a particular focus on music, while considering some of the key questions and issues on this subject, as proposed by the brief. I have once again went over the word count, writing double of the amount proposed. This was due to the amount of research I did, and in order to provide a historical overview of the topic.

Globalization and Music

In the 1990s, globalization as a term gained widespread usage with many interpretations, often controversial in definition. Loosely and simplistically though, it is agreed that globalization refers to the widening, deepening and speeding up of global interconnectedness, where the increasingly expansive spatial connectivity manifests itself through the growing linkage of human activity across regions and continents. (Held et al., 1999: 14-15) It expresses itself through multiple dimensions, varying in number depending on the scholars describing them. For example, Steger (2003) proposes four dimensions, including economic, cultural, political and ecological, while Friedman (2000) proposes six: politics, culture, technology, finance (and trade), national security and ecology.

In any case, traditionally, globalization is maintained to have started with the Age of Exploration, around 1500. However, there is a current of scholarly thought that believes that although there is an ‘undeniable connection’, the globalization of the Age of Exploration did not just originate from ‘a vacuum’ (Anon, 2010), but is a long-term historical process. As they suggest, while the human globalization has entered an accelerative phase around the time, the earliest, what LaBianca and Scham (2016) term the ‘original globalizing forces’ of the cultural connectivity, were already present in the ancient world. In fact, music, which has always been a mobile artistic field, as Wetzel (2012) points out, a travelling companion to the human movement, such as the tribal migrations, military conquests and campaigns, the spread of world’s religious traditions, expeditions and political conferences, might be a documentation of that.

How globalization has been a continuous historical process can be seen in the development of musical instruments, and interestingly, many of the instruments used in the modern Western classical music today have their prototypes in the instruments from the ancient empires of middle and far East, North Africa and other regions, such as Egypt, Sumer, Persia, China and etc. While the globalizing forces of ancient empires couldn’t have literally shrunk the world the way that modern technology has in the contemporary world (Anon, 2010), however, they have allowed not only the construction and function of the musical instruments to be largely shared within different ancient cultures, despite the climatic and geographic differences, multiplicity of languages, peculiarities in religion and government (Wetzel, 2012), but these forces also initiated the global and diachronic desire to increase the potential and qualities of the old instruments, establishing the centuries-long cross-cultural need for their modification, with the instruments reaching us in their contemporary orchestral versions.

Slightly forward in history, through my previous research in the Composing 1 module about the Gregorian and other plainchants (Click here to read), which surfaced with the dominance of the church music in the disintegration of the Greco-Roman epoch in the 5th century AD, I was truly surprised how multinational this tradition and its repertory were, encompassing both the Eastern and Western regions, such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Slavic countries, Rome and similar, formed as Wetzel (2012) writes: “through a globalization process over centuries of Hebrew, Greek, Byzantine, and Roman acculturation”. It also set up the foundation for the invention of musical notation, which liberated music to be stored independently from people, with performers being now able to learn not solely through direct oral means, but also without a personal, corporeal contact with another musician. (Eriksen, 2014: 26) This allowed the explorers and colonizers to bring notated Western music with them in their expeditions to expand Europe near the end of 15th century, when, as previously mentioned, the pressures of globalization began accelerating.

As Woodfield (1995: 39-99) describes, music had an important role in this process of European expansion, being present on board the ships and also at the first encounter with indigenous inhabitants, when musicians served as ‘shoreline ambassadors’. Missionary activities were also accompanied by music, with keyboard music being a particularly effective tool in conversion, serving as a type of ‘keyboard diplomacy’, as Woodfield (1995: 199) termed. In fact, there was even an instance when a missionary, Father Organtino, wrote: “if only we had more organs and other musical instruments, Japan would be converted to Christianity in less than a year.” The Western music also affected the secular life, in the form of both the concert events and the concert venues themselves, often representing the imperial and colonial hegemony to the home audience, as well as in education, through the establishment of colonial conservatoires.

With the rising costs of the empire and the increasing resistance of the colonized population, the process of decolonialization, and the independence it launched, began shaping much of the globe, now largely hybridized in identity; music has shifted from being a political tool of the colonial expression of hegemony, transforming into a multicultural stage where the national and postcolonial identity is articulated. (Anon, 2014) Under the influence of Western aesthetic values on the indigenous cultures, the hybridity became the driving force of globalization, being its ‘cultural logic’ as Kraidy (2005: xii) argued, expressed in two opposite ends, one being the desire to leave traditional cultures intact and without change, and the other being the complete Westernization. Moving towards a world sound, that is “not compartmentalized according to land, language and political borders” (Schwenz, 2014), the clash of the two extremes of hybridity resulted in modernization, in which the elements of the traditional, indigenous musical cultures became reconfigured in accordance or against the values of the adopted and adapted Western concert music (Cook, 2013: 79), which has in turn, itself been influenced by the indigenous music, with the appreciation shifting from pure exoticism to the understanding of its own inherent value. In this regard, music itself received a hyphenated identity, and in the case of classical art music, as Wetzel (2012) roughly suggested, in recognition of the rich musical traditions of all the people in the world, it started moving away from its monocultural connotations.

Reaching the contemporary era, with the invention of recording and broadcasting technologies, such as the phonograph, jukebox and radio, music was now able to travel much farther and faster than people themselves could, being separated from the confinement of human movement to circulate across the continuously more urbanized globe. With the urbanization, music largely turned into a commercial product of the transnational hegemonic forces of media conglomerates, predominantly influenced by the American business of entertainment, with the emergence of globalized popular music and its genres, such as jazz, rock, hip-hop and similar, all resulting from unique stylistic fusions of the diverse musical traditions of the world. The multiculturalism also established world music as a specific genre, highly discussed in terms of globalization. Recorded for the rapidly changing media of distribution, music now became digitalized and virtualized, available with a click or a touch on our screens to be both produced and consumed. With globalization inevitably going hand in hand with capitalism, this is where music lies today, with its genres more hastily than ever interacting and assimilating stylistically, the intensified fusing of which now characterizes it on the commercial field. To see an illustration of the genre entanglement of the popular music, take a look at this video below of the map of the genealogy of the contemporary popular music genres:

In conclusion, much like the way globalization has been “a process inherent to life, from the creation of life’s self-sustaining envelope aeons ago to the trans-migration of primitive humans that ultimately encompassed the entire planet” (Wells, 2004: 180), music had always existed with universal properties capable of uniting human species across the globe. There has always been a worldwide desire, spanning from ancient to contemporary times, to create and modify musical instruments, notate and record music, but more importantly there always lived a diachronic and ubiquitous need for music to be shared, heard socially among us, with its global reach expanding from the attachment to the human movement into the expeditious circulation across the rapidly evolving, all-encompassing technologies. In this sense, I would argue that the role of music will be eternally and inextricably bound to globalization, being one of the artistic and creative manifestations, articulations, expressions and forces of its expansive properties.


Anon. (2010) Prehistory of Globalization. [Online, creative commons] At: (Accessed on 31st July 2018)

Anon. (2014) Music, Identity, and the Postcolonial World: A Comparative Analysis. [Online] At: (Accessed on 1st August 2018)

Cook, N. (2013) ‘Western music as world music’ In: Bohlman, P. V. (ed.) The Cambridge History of World Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 75–100.

Eriksen, T. H. (2014) Globalization: The Key Concepts (2nd ed.) New York: Bloomsbury.

Friedman, T. L. (2000) The Lexus and the Olive Tree. (anchor ed.) Canada: Anchor Books.

Held et al. (1999) Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kraidy, M. M. (2005) Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

LaBianca, O. S, and Scham, S. A. (eds.) (2016) Connectivity in Antiquity: Globalization as Long-Term Historical Process. London: Routledge. [Online] At: (Accessed on 30th July 2018)

Schwenz, C. L. (2014) Hybridity and Postcolonial Music. [Online, blog post] At: (Accessed on 29th July 2018)

Steger, M. B. (2003) Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, G. J. (2004) ‘The Issue of Globalization: An Overview.’ In: Westerfield, E. R. (ed.) Current Issues in Globalization. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. pp. 179-202

Wetzel, R. D. (2012) The Globalization of Music in History. New York: Routledge. [Online] At: (Accessed on 29th July 2018)

Woodfield, I. (1995) English Musicians in the Age of Exploration. Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press.

Posted in Project 2: Wagner Operas

Research point 2.2: Wagner’s Ring cycle, Part 2 – Musical Elements and the Production by Opera North

This is the second part of the research on Wagner’s Ring cycle. While in the first part I focused on the plot and themes within the story, this post will be centered on its musical elements and the production I’ve watched by Opera North.

Interestingly, the Ring cycle emerged from five years of silence, during which Wagner focused more on theoretical writings, such as the famous Opera and Drama, where his radical break with the opera of the time was formulated. Instead of following the bel canto traditions in the style Bellini and Donizetti, or the romantic spectacles in the style of Meyerbeer and Halevy, Wagner introduced his idea of Gesamtkunstwerkthe total art work. (Bassett, 2003: ix-x) With the four operas of the Ring cycle, Wagner entered the uncharted area of a new kind of musical drama, where instead of relying on the old aria and ensemble singing, he pioneered the technique of leitmotif.

In my previous musical education, the leitmotifs were mentioned in a very trivialized manner, as a kind of static musical labels given to the characters, objects and situations in Wagner’s operas. However, listening and watching the cycle changed my previous notion. First of all, what really surprised me is the fact that Wagner didn’t introduce the term himself, but it was Wolzogen who interpreted Wagner’s music. Second, more than being separate associative and referential musical themes, in the Ring cycle, leitmotifs establish a larger semantic network – they are a structural unification between text, music and drama.

As Grey (2008: 88) explains, in “constructing essentially the entire musical fabric of the score,” Wagner added the symphonic layer to the ring cycle operas, with orchestra receiving a new role, detached from its old position as the ‘harmonic-rhythmic carpet’ for the virtuosity of the singers, instead becoming the bearer of the drama. Furthermore, leitmotifs allow the orchestra to obtain mastery over the dramatic time, being free to comment on the events in three temporal dimensions – through anticipation, realization and reminiscence – the ‘musical-dramatic tenses’ for the future, present and past. Finally, what also surprised me about the leitmotifs is how dynamic they are, constantly changing context throughout story, shifting and transforming through the variations of different qualities. Within this novel structural matrix, the singing also transformed, being distanced from the popular lyrical style, and instead returning to the recitative or scene styles of earlier operas, which gave it a new type of realism, partly because the text doesn’t rely on the usual verse, but on the prose-like, non-rhyming lines that are imitating the medieval Stabreim poetry. (Grey, 2008: 86-87)

Finally, regarding the musical elements, much like Harold en Italie (click here to read my post), the ring cycle also relies on the physical spacing in the portrayal of the narrative, represented through the acoustics of the new theatrical environment requested by Wagner, in which the orchestra is concealed from the audience in the pit in order to create, in his words, the ‘mystic abyss’, so that the ‘spectral-sounding music’ could emanate from ‘the womb of the Earth’ as ‘the truest simulacrum of life itself’. (Millington, 2008: 80) In creating the immersive experience for the audience, while watching the ring, I have also noticed many instances when Wagner, just like Berlioz in Herold, would utilize the contrast between the offstage and onstage dramatic space, and it’s interesting how this topic hasn’t really been discussed in the academic and scholarly circles regarding the cycle.

In any case, the orchestra pit is the perfect subject that leads me to the production by Opera North from 2016 that I’ve watched, which against Wagner’s ideals, liberated the orchestra from the mystic abyss. Not only are the orchestral members and the conductor visible and take up a large portion of the stage, but every other element, such as scenery and costumes, has been stripped to a bare minimum. For example, instead of the stage being physically transformed into elaborate, landscape-like mythical sceneries, this production utilizes three square screens that seem like a triptych painting in video format, showing the different settings of the story, such as water, fire, rainbow bridge, forest and similar. In the streaming, these were displayed as split screens, often superimposed over the performers, providing the characters with a unique filmic dimension. (Fig. 1)


Fig. 1. The orchestra on stage and the triptych projection design in Opera North’s production of the Ring cycle (Opera North, 2016) Continue reading “Research point 2.2: Wagner’s Ring cycle, Part 2 – Musical Elements and the Production by Opera North”

Posted in Project 2: Wagner Operas

Research point 2.2: Wagner’s Ring cycle, Part 1 – General Story Information and Themes

This research point is about watching or listening to the whole operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring of the Nibelung) composed by Richard Wagner (Fig. 1), also known as the Ring cycle. Initially, as recommended by the brief, I wanted to see the cycle performed live, and the closest place for me was the Royal Opera House in London, however, I found that the tickets were already sold out for this season. As such, I decided to watch a recording of a live performance online, and came upon the streaming of the production by Opera North. Although the brief mentioned to write 500 words, I found that even listing only the important plot points took around 800 words. Because of this, I decided to split the research into two parts. In the first part here, I will note general story information and themes found in this colossal cycle, while in the next part, I will write about the musical elements and the production by Opera North that I watched.


Fig. 1. Richard Wagner (1871)

Der Ring des Nibelungen was devised as a stage festival play to be performed over the course of four nights, consisting of four operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) as the prelude to the cycle, what Wagner called the ‘preliminary evening‘, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegried, and finally Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). This form was largely inspired by the ancient Greek tradition, where three tragedies were succeeded by a shorter satyr-play. (Millington, 2008: 74-75) As can be imagined from some of the titles, essentially, the story follows the fantastical world of gods, giants, gnomes, Valkyries and human heroes, as they battle for power, symbolized by the most desirable object in their mythical realms – the golden ring of Rhine, but also love and many other things. In fact, what I found most exiting about the cycle is Wagner’s universal depiction of the conflicts and the motivations that drive the characters. Continue reading “Research point 2.2: Wagner’s Ring cycle, Part 1 – General Story Information and Themes”

Posted in Project 1: Orchestras and Virtuosos

Research point 2.1: Harold en Italie, Part 2 – Instrument Glossary Update

The last task for this research point is to update the instrument glossary with the unfamiliar names of instruments from Harold en Italie by Berlioz. To see the first part of this research point, where I wrote down my impressions, click here. While the first instrument glossary post had German instrument names from Don Juan by Strauss, (click here to see), I’ve looked at two versions for this piece, one score in French and the other in Italian. I marked both languages below. I should mention that I also found the scanned manuscript by Berlioz, which I will reference several times.

  • Wind section:

Flauto, flauti (It.) – flûte, flûtes (Fr.) – flute, flutes

Flauto piccolo (It.) – petite flûte (Fr.) – piccolo

Flauto grande (It.) – grande flûte (Fr.) – concert flute

Oboe, oboi (It.) – hautbois (same in plural) (Fr.) – oboe, oboes. Interestingly, in the manuscript version of the score, Berlioz put oboï in several places, perhaps as shorthand:

berlioz 10

Corni inglese (It.) – cor anglais (Fr.) – cor anglais

Oboe e corni inglese alternativo (It.) Hautbois et cor anglais alternativement (Fr.) – oboe and cor anglais alternatively.

Clarinetti (It.) – clarinettes (Fr.) – clarinets

Fagotto, fagotti (It.) – basson, bassons (Fr.) – bassoon, bassoons

  • Horns:

Corno, corni (It.) – cor, cors (Fr.) – horn, horns

  • Brass section:

Cornetti (It.) – cornets a piston (Fr.) – cornettos, interestingly, in the Italian version of the score I found, there was an instance of it written as cornets, perhaps the translator/editor forgot to put it into Italian language.

Trombe (It.) – trumpettes (Fr.) – trumpets in C

Tromboni (It.) – trombones (Fr.) – trombones

Ophicleide o Tuba (It.) – Ophicléide ou Tuba (Fr.) – Ophicleide or tuba. In the original manuscript, however, Berlioz put trombonnes et un ophicleide – trombones and one ophicleide, instead of or.

  • Percussion

Triangolo (It.) – triangle (Fr.) – Triangle

Piatti (It.) – cymbales (Fr.) – cymbals

Tamburi piccoli (It.) – tambours de Basque (Fr.) – snare drums

Timpani (It.) – timballes (Fr.) – Timpani

Arpa (It.) – harpe (Fr.) – Harp

  • Solo instrument

Viola Solo (It.) – alto solo (Fr.) – solo viola

  • Strings

Violini (It.) – violons (Fr.) – violins. It’s interesting how Berlioz used Wini or VVini in the manuscript as a shorthand to designate together the first and second violins:

berlioz 11

Violini al meno #violons au moins # – at least # violins

Viole (It.) – altos (Fr.) – violas

Violoncelli (It.) – violoncelles (Fr.) – cellos. Berlioz shortened it as Velli:

berlioz 12a

Contrabassi (It.) – contre-basses (Fr.) – double basses. Berlioz put C. Bssi as shorthand:

berlioz 12b

Finally, a little note that in Italian, when the instrument is in a certain key, it is denoted as in, while in French, it is en. In the two versions I have, in the Italian, the key itself is marked alphabetically (C, D, E etc.), while in the French, the key is written in solmization (ut, re, mi, etc.).

In conclusion, while many French and Italian instrument names were already familiar to me, it was quite engaging looking at the original manuscript to see how the composer himself would denote the instruments, finding out the shorthand and other methods Berlioz would use as markings. In addition, although I could already recognize most of the instrument names from both languages, I still wanted to compile a big glossary, which I could always reference in the future, as well as practice the orchestral layout. Lastly, I really enjoyed listening to this peculiar piece, looking at its score, writing down my impressions and compiling an update for my instrument glossary.

Posted in Project 1: Orchestras and Virtuosos, Uncategorized

Research point 2.1: Harold en Italie, Part 1 – Impression

The main task of this research point is to write around 400 words about my impression on listening to Berlioz’s Harold en Italie with the score, considering several points outlined in the course-book. I haven’t addressed each of these separately, since I believe the points overlap quite a bit in relation to the things I found specifically engaging in the music. Also, despite trying to limit myself to the suggested word count, the composition was so thrilling to me that the shortest I could confine myself to write was almost twice more, around 800 words. In any case, here is my impression on the piece:

Impression on Harold en Italie by Hector Berlioz

Reading the short background information on the history of Harold en Italie provided by the brief, my curiosity was sparked by its unique and puzzling origin, and with some further research, I was even more enticed by the complexities surrounding its genre classification, the enigmatic relationship with its literary inspiration, and its intriguing musical roots among other things. While I might lightly touch upon some of these contextual circumstances, what seized my attention the most were the two elements that can be heard and discovered within the music itself, which will be the main focus of this short article.

Firstly, in illustrating its programme, what I found utmost striking is how the narrative of the piece is musically sketched through the orchestration and instrumental positioning that form a distinct physical spacing for the story. In terms of the orchestration, it was very interesting for me to see how in the first movement, the scenery of the mountains is formed by the orchestral echoes of Harold’s idée fixe theme (Fig. 1), and culminates in the rhythmical displacement when the theme is played tutti (Fig. 2), and other similar points in the movement, representing the delay and reverberation of sounds that is characteristic in such an environment. In combination to this effect, Berlioz also utilizes the different dynamics, registers, timber and other qualities of the orchestra to further show the scale of the landscape.

berlioz 1.PNG

berlioz 2.PNG

Fig. 1. Example of the orchestral echoes of idée fixe theme (bars 42-49)

berlioz 3berlioz 4

Fig. 2. Rhythmical displacement of the idée fixe theme (bars 73-76)

What I thought was even more exciting is the second movement, and the way the ascending keys in the repetition of the themes and the shifting dynamics of the orchestra, manifest in the characterization of the pilgrims in a religious procession that are moving through space – pianissimo to forte and fading back to pianissimo, as if the pilgrims march pass us in their ascent up the mountain. In addition, together with the rhythm, melodic and harmonic manipulation, Berlioz also utilizes the different properties of specific orchestral members to create extra-musical associations such as the bells (Fig. 3) and the murmuring of the crowd or prayer (Fig. 4).

berlioz 4.png

Fig. 3. Orchestral illustration of the bells, bars 1-15

berlioz 6

Fig. 4. Orchestral illustration of the murmuring of the crowd or prayer, bars 33-36

In terms of placing the instruments in the performance venue, Berlioz gave specific instructions for the solo viola to be at the front and separated from the orchestra, with the harp close to it. While the justification of the intended genre or the better projection of the solo instrument could have influenced this decision, I would propose that the main intention was to physically create the acoustic environment of Harold’s isolation, where the melancholic observer in a contemplative state, personified as the viola accompanied by the harp, is surrounded by the unknown foreign land, depicted by the orchestra. In the final movement, Berlioz further widens the dramatic space of the musical narrative by utilizing off-stage acoustical space, with the appearance of the concealed string trio, situated behind the scenes. (In the video below, the off-stage trio appears around 45:13-45:39, however not too concealed, but behind the orchestra, as can be seen at 45:20)

While the on-stage music depicts the orgy of the brigands, the off-stage trio creates a spatial conflict by recounting the earlier march of the pilgrims, physically dramatizing Harold’s spiritual divide. To me, the silence of the viola at this point of conclusion is completely absorbing, in fact, as gripping as a film with open-ending, since the listener is removed from the chance to learn the outcome of Harold’s crucial moral decision about his life. This proves how, contrary to what one might assume, the silence, even of the soloist itself, can provide extremely powerful moments to the musical dramatization. While I hoped to find the recorded video of the performances to depict this more clearly, I find the staging not as satisfactory as I imagined when I only listened to the audio recording with the score.

Finally, beside the physical spacing, there was another element that caught my attention, and that is how the portrait of the Italian countryside has been largely musically exoticized. As van Rij (2015: 102) points out, influenced by the French attitude towards Italy as the subject of Napoloenic military conquest, Berlioz didn’t enter the creative dialogue with the techniques and styles from the modern Italian musical tradition he encountered at the Academy in Rome, which he perceived as uninspiring and constraining. As such, the gloomy double fugue that opens the composition, might be a representation of his perception of the Academy from which Berlioz sought the escape in the countryside. Indeed, the only instance where he interacts with the Italian musical tradition is through folk music in the third Serenade movement, where the ritornello imitates the pifferari tradition of the wondering Italian musicians. (Monelle: 2006: 230) However, what dominates the piece is the Italian landscape as showcased through the lens of musical exoticism – Italian country as Berlioz has conquered it with his own artistic visions and impressions, in other words, as he had experienced and wants the listeners to experience it. Lastly, many of the sections, including Harold’s idée fixe theme, are rather Scottish in tone, with quite a few parts borrowed from his Rob Roy overture, and the piece was even initially conceptualized as the Mary Stuart piece (van Rij, 2015: 100), all of which brings further considerations surrounding this peculiar symphony.

Continue reading “Research point 2.1: Harold en Italie, Part 1 – Impression”

Posted in Project 1: Orchestras and Virtuosos

Exercise 2.0: Transposing instruments

As the title describes, this exercise is about transposing instruments. The task is to transpose two excerpts, bars 1-5 in Don Juan by Strauss, from the written pitch to the sounding pitch.

Below is the first excerpt of the horns in E, given in the written pitch in the course material:

exercise 2

When played, the horns in E sound minor sixth below the written pitch, meaning that C major in the excerpt becomes E major below. I find this to be the most efficient way of transposing – not thinking about every note as a separate unit to transpose, but instead, I regard the notes as maintaining the same functions within different tonalities – tonic, supertonic, mediant etc. Also, in my ABRSM theory exam, I remember there were two ways to notate transpositions – with key signatures and without. Thus, to practice, I did both versions here, although for the ones without key signatures I still wrote the natural signs within the parenthesis:

exercise 2.0

exercise 2.0 b

The second excerpt is for clarinets in A, given in the written pitch in the course booklet:

exercise 2.0

When this excerpt is played, the clarinets in A sound minor third below the written notes, and the tonality of G major becomes E major below. Here are the two versions of my transposition:

exercise 2.0 c

exercise 2.0 d

In conclusion, I already did some exercises with transposing instruments, such as the ones for my ABRSM theory exam. However, I never actually transposed anything from the repertoire, which is why I found this exercise so beneficial. I also haven’t done it in a while, so this was a great refresher too, to get me back into the gear for orchestral writing.

Posted in Project 1: Orchestras and Virtuosos, Uncategorized

Research point 2.0: The orchestral score

This research point is about the layout of the orchestral scores, by taking a closer look at the first page of Don Juan by Richard Strauss, written in 1888. Below is the score:IMSLP18774-PMLP12183-Strauss_-_Don_Juan_(orch._score)-01.jpg

The task is to find out the instruments within each section of a standard symphony orchestra in their order. I find the advice of the brief about noting all the instrument names in the original language – French, Italian or other, and thus building my own multi-lingual glossary, very useful and productive. Below is the list with the order of instruments from each section with the names in English and German, latter being the language Strauss notated Don Juan. I decided not to include the number of instruments, mostly because I believe the terms are the main focus of this exercise, and not how many of each he used here, although I did keep the singular/plural forms of the nouns.

  • Wind section:

grosse Flötenflutes

  grosse Flöten (auch Piccolo)flutes (also piccolo)


Englisch Horncor anglais (UK and France) or English horn (in North America)

Clarinetten in Aclarinets in A

Fagottebassons (interestingly, we also call bassoon fagot in Serbia)

Contrafagottcontrabassoon or double bassoon

  • Horns:

 Hörner in Ehorns in E (compare this with the cor anglais above – in the singular form for horn in German, there is no ö, but only o)

  •  Brass section:

Trompeten in Etrumpets in E 


Tuba tuba

  • Percussion:

Pauken E. H. C.timpani in E, B and C


Becken  – cymbals

Glockenspiel glockenspiel


  • Strings:




Bassodouble bass

In conclusion, while this hasn’t been my first encounter with the orchestral score, I never paid attention before to the order of the instruments in the layout of the scores I’ve seen. As such, although the exercise wasn’t at all difficult, it was still very useful. With the exception of 3 German terms – Posaune, Pauken, Becken, that I had to search, all the others were very intuitive, so that I was confident in which instruments these were. Overall, I really enjoyed this research point.

Posted in Part 1 - Listening ST, Uncategorized

Mass Music, Part 2

In this post I will list the Renaissance and post-Renaissance mass compositions I’ve listened to, which include some 20th century neo-Renaissance pieces. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my post for Research Point 1.1 here.

Polyphonic Renaissance Mass Pieces

Josquin des PrezMissa Pange Lingua (c. 1515)

Josquin wrote around 20 cyclic masses, making a compendium of all techniques of mass composition from his time, while introducing several new ones. As listening to all of them would take up too much time, I decided to focus on one of them. While I wanted to take a look at the new technique of solmization syllables, such as in his famous Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, where the cantus firmus is based on the syllables of the Duke’s name, in the end, I decided to take a look at Missa Pange lingua. Beside the use of imitation, what I found the most interesting is the way the Gregorian hymn Pange lingua has been transformed under the paraphrasing hand of Josquin, with the work completely organized around its melodic material, each movement with the motto beginning, being a type of variation and fantasy on the hymn. I was really absorbed to comparing the original hymn to its modified treatment, especially in Agnus Dei – the movement I enjoyed the most. I believe Josquin really put the Gregorian melody into the contemporary context of his time. In this sense, this Ordinary mass cycle shows how polyphonic techniques at the time weren’t used just as showcases of preferred musical taste with a set of compositional rules, but also a tool by which musicians could engage with the now detached old gems of music, under the new consideration that is supplied with novel techniques. I truly enjoy this type of historical interactions when studying the stylistic approach to music.

Orlando di LassoMissa super ‘Osculetur me’ (1582)

Although Palestrina is known as the hallmark of the Renaissance polyphonic mass compositions, I decided to also check out Lasso’s output of mass music, especially since he wrote around 60 of them. What I found very interesting about this mass is its use of the double-choir antiphonal music, reminiscent of the Venetian style of polychoral techniques, perhaps even being its precursor. I really tried to have my ears spot the differences in sonority between passages for one choir and those with both. However, I found this very difficult to accomplish, probably because my ears, used to the modern music, aren’t sensitive enough to spot these as contrasts, but only as barely-noticeable dissimilarities.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli (c. 1562)

Palestrina, of course, made the biggest achievements in the field of mass composition, writing for all types of masses, influencing many future generations with his technical accomplishments. I have heard several of his mass pieces, and here decided to finally to listen to Missa Papae Marcelli, as it was historically significant when the Council of Trent raised the concerns over polyphonic music. The mass is based on the freely composed new material. What enjoyed the most was the contrast between the Credo and Gloria movements in the homophonic and declamatory style with block chords, and Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in the florid, imitative style. Used here for the first time, this is a feature that will appear in all Palestrina’s subsequent masses.

Post-Renaissance Mass

Claudio MonteverdiMissa in illo tempore (1610) and Gloria a 7 voci (1640/1641)

I chose these two mass compositions by Monterverdi to compare the two styles of music that have appeared in Baroque music – stile antico and stile moderno. Indeed, the difference is gigantic. Missa in illo tempore is truly reminiscent of Palestrina’s style, with much everything the same, only organs added and clearer cadences, while Gloria a 7 voci, sounds very baroque, with many instrumental flourishes and continuo. It is interesting how one genre of music, in this case, the mass, can survive both as the practice that is preserving the old traditions, and as the practice that looks into the future. Continue reading “Mass Music, Part 2”

Posted in Part 1 - Listening ST

Mass Music, Part 1

In this part of the listening log, I will list the mass compositions I’ve listened to. I’ve included different historical periods and styles, which I’ve divided into two posts with several sections. In this post I will list the Gregorian mass chants and early polyphonic mass music. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my posts for Research Point 1.1 here.

Gregorian Mass Chants

As I have mentioned in one of the posts linked above, the Gradual and Alleluia compositions were considered the musical high points of the mass and their sequences. Beside these Proper items, I have also listened to some chants from the Ordinary of the mass.

Christus factus est and Ecce Sacerdos Magnus

What I’ve found particularly interesting is how these two graduals, both in 5th mode, demonstrate the technique of centonization, being a kind of extreme case by having almost identical melodies, with only differences arising from the accommodating of the different texts. As can be expected from the form of gradual, they are very florid and melismatic.

Alleluia Dominus in Sina and Spiritus Domini

Like the graduals, both these chants are very melismatic, especially the alleluia sections with its jubilus. Although I really enjoyed the graduals, I find alleluias to be my favorite chants from Mass proper.

Christus hunc Diem and Veni Sancte Spiritus

What I observed immediately is how distinct the sequences sound from the graduals and alleluias. These two are direct continuations from the two alleluias I’ve listed above. Whereas before I did the research, I probably wouldn’t have noticed any difference, now I can clearly distinguish the stylistic discrepancies that arise from the age of composition coming from disparate periods – sequences being the new Frankish additions to the graduals and alleluias from the old Gregorian repertoire. Indeed, the stylistic dissimilarities, especially in the movement of the melody and the treatment of the text, are very audible once you know what to listen for, and I am glad I now know how to approach these specific areas of Gregorian chant, in a sense, gaining stylistic consciousness, despite the fact that many would consider Gregorian chant to be one uniform style of music.

Kyrie VIII and Kyrie Rex Aeterno – I found it very engaging, comparatively listening to the original Kyrie and its trope. Interestingly, this is the only Kyrie that hasn’t been grouped in the Kyriale by its trope. The reason may perhaps be the late origin of the trope. It includes both the addition of text and the melodic changes, making the original Kyrie much more complex. 

Early Polyphonic Mass

I tried to include all the polyphonic mass forms that appeared until Renaissance, including organum and the first Ordinary cycles, however organum compositions in particular were really difficult to find.

Organum Rex caeli, Domine (9th century)

The earliest organum were based on the sequences for alleluias and graduals. This one in the oblique form is based on the sequence Rex caeli, Domine. What I enjoyed the most was the drone effect that is characteristic for the oblique organum.  Continue reading “Mass Music, Part 1”