10 minutes of a Haydn oratorio

And now for something completely different.

There’s a good chance you couldn’t name more than a couple of works written by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and probably not this particular one.  That’s perfectly fine. Before I go into any more detail, I’d invite you to listen to the first ten minutes of the piece, (until the video reaches the 10:49 mark). An embedded version can also be found at bottom of this post. You’re more than welcome to listen past that point, as it’s an incredible work, but what I have to say afterwards only concerns those first 10 minutes.


You’re back? Awesome, wasn’t it?

It’s extremely difficult to describe a piece of music with words, much less how that music affects you. Music is a language that is universally intelligible, but it is very hard to capture its effects in other languages, whether spoken or written. But I’m going try anyway, because it’s well worth the effort. The Internet allows me to illuminate this post with both visual and auditory aids, so I’ll add links to certain places in the recording or refer to the score as needed.

I’ve listened to the first 10 minutes of The Creation 25-30 times, with most of those times happening while preparing this post, and still get chills down my back every time the words “and there was light” is sung. It could be a different version (there are many others on YouTube), or it could be playing on my potato laptop speakers; just hearing that stretch of music ending with that C-major chord is enough to have a physiological and emotional effect.

I’ll go over the music itself later on, and why I think Haydn was so effective in eliciting that feeling, as well as provide a bit more historical context, but for now I’ll use more descriptive language. After all, even the most analytical of baseball fans don’t immediately go to Statcast data to describe a dramatic home run or strikeout just after it happened.


A Description

The Creation/Die Schöpfung by Joseph Haydn – Hob. XXI:2 (written 1797-1798, published 1800)

Selected sections:

2:05 The Representation of Chaos (instrumental overture)

7:47In the Beginning” (accompanied recitative)

10:15 “And there was light” (the resolution)

The first section of The Creation is called (roughly translated) “The Representation of Chaos”. As you might suspect, the ultimate source material is the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, and the oratorio’s overture is meant to evoke a feeling of nothingness before the first chapter begins. After the initial fanfare, the music subsides to a slow, discordant section with no musical resolution. Let me explain: when you listen to a piece of music, whether from this period or something released last week, you subconsciously expect the music to progress in a certain way, whether through consistency in tone, in melody, in dynamics (loud/soft), or in its ending. This overture does none of these things, and so creates a feeling of discontentment, of uncomfortableness because there is seemingly no direction to it. At times there are a couple points in which you think the mood will change (which I’ll go into below), but immediately the music reverses course. The section ends much as it begins, with a soft and depressing whimper. Even to our modern ears, the entire overture is strange and weird; just think what the first audiences, long accustomed to the Classical ideal of “melody first” (think of examples like this and this) thought while listening to it.

You have doubtless noticed how I have avoided the resolutions that one most expects. That is because nothing has yet assumed form.

-Haydn, on the Representation of Chaos

The recitative (a type of choral music in which a singer half-sings/half-speaks the lines) begins in much the same way as the overture ended: in a minor key, with the orchestra providing discordant accompaniment. But when the full chorus comes in (9:21), you finally have the first inkling of a resolution, which in my mind makes the payoff that much better; it’s not a sudden change from chaos to order, but a gradual buildup to it. The combination of the ethereal voices with the pulsing orchestra is a fantastic effect, giving you a sense of expectancy even if you’ve never heard the piece before. But Haydn doesn’t give it completely away, because there is no dynamic change leading to the final resolution, just a tone shift.

When the resolution happens (10:15), you get blindsided by three different changes: (1) minor to major key change, (2) a dynamic change (very soft to very loud), and (3) and, most importantly, the sudden appearance of a strong melody. Also, some performances will speed up the tempo, which gives it that extra bit of impact. It is then that you realize the previous 8-9 minutes of uncomfortable music was absolutely necessary for this moment. Had Haydn started the piece without the dark and ominous overture, the “let there be light” line wouldn’t have near the impact on the listener.

How can a concourse of sounds correspond to an emotion? That last word is not the right one. For example, in Haydn’s Creation there is a strong modulation to C major on the the words “Let there be light.” The notes as such have nothing to do with light. But the change of key – and to that key – produces a visceral sensation (for want of a better word), a sensation of discovery, of openness, release, relief – it has no name; it is not one of the emotions.

-Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence


Historical notes

Haydn was already the most famous composer in Europe when he wrote The Creation. While on his second trip to England, he had heard several of Handel’s (he composed Messiahamong many others) oratorios, and contemplated composing an oratorio of his own in Handel’s style. This marked a new challenge for the 66-year-old Haydn, who had excelled in (heck, practically invented) many other musical genres (the symphony, the string quartet, just to name a few) during his long career as a composer. The libretto (or text of the oratorio) originally came from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and was originally intended for Handel himself to use. The libretto was translated into German for its debut, though it would be published in both English and German shortly thereafter (the English version is considered subpar, so that’s why you’ll often see it performed in German even in front of English-speaking audiences). The Creation premiered in Vienna in 1798, and quickly became an international hit.

The work as a whole is optimistic in tone, a marriage of Haydn’s deeply religious beliefs with the Enlightenment values of his era.


An Analysis

Now to do the unpleasant but necessary task of breaking down a piece of music into its component parts in order to better understand why this first part of The Creation has such an emotional impact. It is difficult to quantify the emotional effect music has on an individual person, never mind all of humanity (or even just cross-section of it). However, there are some general effects that music tends to have on people. For example, a piece played in a minor key is considered “sad” music, while music in a major key is more closely associated with happiness. There are other structural components that have similar impacts. I’ve listed them below, along with a comparison how the overture and the resolution are structured.

Tempo (speed or pace of the music) 

Representation of Chaos: Lento/Very slow (sadness)

And there was light”: Adagio/Slow (in some versions) (more happiness)

For reference, Lento is generally understood to be 40-60 beats per minute. In the version I’ve linked the tempo is about 50-52 beats per minute for the overture, with the music speeding up after the resolution. The tempo is still on the slower side, but the accelerando (speeding up) of the music does have an impact.

Mode (the type of scale – major/minor)

Representation of Chaos: c minor (sadness)

“And there was light”: C major (joy)

Tones that are closer together sound more dissonant, creating tension. The minor scale’s third tone is a half-step lower than its major scale analogue. In this case, the third tone for the opening key (c minor) is E-flat, while the third tone for the resolution key signature is E-natural (C major). You can see this in the score (which I’ve added in a later section).

Loudness/Softness of the music

  Representation of Chaos: generally soft (torpor)

“And there was light”: very loud (excitement)

In the overture, there are some small loud sections, but for the most part the music is marked as p (piano/soft) or even pp (pianissimo/very soft). The section just before the resolution (where the chorus come in) is marked pp, while the resolution is marked fff (fortississimo/very very loud), which is basically as large a dynamic change as you can have in music.

Melody (complementary or clashing)

Representation of Chaos: clashing (unpleasantness)

“And there was light”: complementary (peaceful)

In the Classical era, melody came before just about anything else. So to contemporary audiences, the lack of a coherent melody (which was by design) had to be the most jarring facet of the overture. It is only when the chorus enters (9:18) that you get any kind of melodic structure that Haydn’s contemporaries would recognize.

Rhythm (regular/smooth vs. irregular/rough)

Representation of Chaos: irregular (uneasiness)

“And there was light”: regular (happiness)

Haydn used a number of rhythms in his overture, often playing them off against one another. For example, in measures 6-8 (see below for the score), he used three consecutive runs of triplets offsetting longer notes elsewhere in the orchestra. But once the chorus comes in, everything in is lock step.

Programmatic Features

Program Music, or music composed with an extra-music theme in mind, really didn’t become widespread until the later Romantic era, but works like this do I think qualify as such. It has a specific theme, and the music is obviously written in a way to capture both the overall theme as well as the words sung. The audience would have known the subject matter forwards and backwards, and that would have added to the emotional payoff at many points, particularly at the resolution.


Conclusion

This is a vast departure from what I’ve written before, though in some aspects there are some parallels. Like with baseball, music can be enjoyed by anyone, even those with no real prior knowledge. You don’t need to know any music theory or historical background to be moved by a masterpiece like The Creation, but even a bit of deeper understanding makes it a much more rewarding experience. I’ll be back with a regularly-scheduled Indians post next Monday.

Below: The score, and some resources for further reading/listening.

Continue reading “10 minutes of a Haydn oratorio”

In Search Of…

The Internet to me is an almost magical place because I lived a significant portion of my life without it. I learned to write letters (as in pieces of paper that you sent to other people via the Postal Service) in school because that was a key form of communication, went to the public library to research for school projects, and watched (grainy) television or rented videos at physical stores for entertainment. Nowadays you may think about these things as hardships, but 20-25 years ago they were the best technology we had at the time and were not thought of negatively. In fact, things like going to the rental store for a weekend movie was quite a novelty, at least where I lived.

By the time I reached high school, I had access to dial-up internet, and there were a couple of a computers at school connected to the Internet, but it wasn’t really until I got to college that I experienced anything like the Internet we have today. The ability to have your own constantly-connected high-speed portal to the Web was an exhilarating experience, my generation’s version of experiencing the widespread availability of electricity.

The delivery mechanism was the revolution that came with the Internet. We still communicate, we still research, and we still consume entertainment, it’s just that now we do these things from our computers instead of through physical means. Time and distance no longer matters; all you need is an Internet-connected device. That device allows anyone in the world to access the same information that a couple of decades ago was only available to people in universities or in large, wealthy cities. This democratization of access is one of the major breakthroughs of the last century, and we see the effects of that unfolding before our eyes every day. No longer does the average man or woman just consume information, but contributes it as well.

Surfing the web was the main pastime for me in the early days on the Internet. The joy was in the search, and occasionally you’d find a gem. The Internet, even in those days, was a massive, massive place, and although you rarely found exactly what you were looking for, you’d often find something that you weren’t looking for but was interesting nonetheless. Many of the sites that I follow to this day I found unintentionally, usually while I was searching for something completely different. Some I found because someone I regularly read recommended them.

When I first started this site, a huge chunk of my time and energy was spent figuring out how to be seen by other Indians fans. There were portal sites that you could submit your blog to, and ways to get noticed by the search engine spiders, but the more effective way was simply trading links with other sites; someone e-mailed you about their blog, you checked it out, then you posted a link on your site to his blog and he posted a link to you on his blog. In that way you created a connected community of readers, in this case Indians fans.

Nowadays, the best way to get noticed quickly is to just stake out a spot in the walled gardens of the large social networks and try to play by their rules, because that’s where the readers are. If you’re a consumer of content, you’re going to go to one of the big sites, because that’s where the content is; you just have to allow these sites to know your search history and some personal information in exchange. This begins a positive feedback loop resulting in much of the content being concentrated in fewer and fewer places. For example, Vidme, one of the few competitors to YouTube, shut down last year, noting the extreme difficulty in monetizing user-generated video content. This comes in the form of the hardware needed to stream millions of videos concurrently, the algorithms needed to curate these videos, and catering to the needs of fickle advertisers. For a place like Facebook, you add the difficulty of poaching users: you can’t just convince individuals to jump to your platform, but entire circles of people, because people aren’t going to go somewhere new if their friends aren’t there.


A Sidebar: The Ad-Based Revenue Model

The modern digital currency is not the dollar, yuan, euro, or bitcoin, but personal information. This currency is the backbone of the ad-based Internet, and the reason why Google and Facebook are two of the largest companies in the world today.
When you visit any kind of website that is both free to the reader and has advertisements, you are the product. The content provider makes its money via advertisements, and they get more money with more impressions. The more people visit the site, the more impressions the advertisers get, and the more money the content creator gets. This model itself is not new, as newspapers, television, and radio all have operated under this for decades. The difference with this new medium is that advertisers have immediate feedback on how much traffic they received as a result of that ad. Instead of getting partial feedback (for instance, the prevalence of discount codes tied to specific advertising campaigns is an attempt for companies to judge its effectiveness), companies know exactly how many people clicked on that banner ad, plus perhaps other information on those people.

Digital content companies like Google and Facebook have taken this a step further. Because of the data they have on their users, they have the ability to place ads in front of the people who are the most likely to be interested in them. They have massive user bases, and more importantly information from those users to be able to tailor advertisements to them. This is accomplished through a computer algorithm, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself. In brief, these algorithms sift through the massive amount of content on a site like YouTube and determines what you see on the site based on the criteria they are given. For example, the YouTube algorithms could be operating with a goal of maximizing the average time spent on the site, and the algorithm takes it from there, even if it affects the makeup of the audience and the type of content that is preferredGoogle’s AdWords is the dominant advertiser on the Internet, with ad revenue accounting for $95.38B for the company in 2017.

Another important distinction between the “old” and “new” method of advertising is that the actual content on the “new” sites is not being created by the company, but by its users. Google/YouTube, for example, provides the infrastructure to handle streaming videos, as well as the algorithms that attempts to give people videos they want to see, but they (for the most part) don’t make the videos themselves. If the local newspaper followed the Google/Facebook model, they would own the printing equipment and the distribution network, but not write any of their stories.


I was one of the first people to adopt many Google products, including Blogspot (which Google had just purchased in 2003) and Gmail (which is the reason I have a rather unique e-mail address), but I have begun to recognize the downsides of the algorithmic ad-based model. Many YouTube content creators, stung by demonetization, have gone to Patreon or similar sites so that they can get  a consistent income without going behind a paywall. Some new sites, like The Athletic, have committed to a pure subscription model. There are also browser-based models being tried out, which shifts the walls from the site to the browser. I hope one of these competing models succeeds.

The algorithm is just a tool, neither inherently good nor bad.  But even if it works well, it still removes much of the agency of the user, and in order to fully utilize the algorithm, you need to provide these sites personal information you wouldn’t want anyone outside your family or close friends to have, never mind available to the Internet. There has always been a trade off in this arrangement, but over the past several years that trade off has become much less tenable to me. I’ll use these major sites as ways to find content, but once found, I’ll read/watch them via an RSS reader, which I think is a way to consolidate what you want to consume, rather than relying on a site telling you what it thinks you want to consume.

So if I’m not on  Facebook as much as I used to, or suddenly move this blog to a different platform, you’ll understand why.

While writing that last sentence, this popped up in my Facebook feed. Maybe the algorithm knew I was writing this post…..

See below for videos mentioned in this post:

Continue reading “In Search Of…”

Book Review: The Aeneid

(first published on 10-22-2004 at this location)

The Aeneid – Virgil (70-19 BC)

Original Language: Latin
Genre: Epic
Written: 29-19 BC
Edition: Penguin Classics (1956)
Translator: W.F. Jackson Knight

Widely considered one of the pillars of Western Literature, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who escapes the sack of Troy and finds a new home in Italy. He is sidetracked often on his journey, mostly by divine intervention. Virgil portrays the Roman gods as interested in mankind, and each god or goddess has their favorite. Aeneas’ nemesis is Juno, who was for the Greeks in the Trojan War; she delays or hinders his travels many times. When Aeneas and his followers finally arrive in Italy, they becomes embroiled (thanks to the design of Juno) in a bloody conflict between the Trojans and the Rutulians, headed by Turnus. The last six books of the Aeineid resembles the Iliad with its descriptions of battle and conflict.

Virgil died before completing the Aeneid, but even so, it is a masterpiece of literature. If you have any designs of reading the best of ancient literature, this is one work you cannot miss. The edition I read contains a very nice prose translation by Knight, and also contains a very helpful glossary of names and locations. Obviously the best reading of the Aeneid will come in Latin, where Virgil’s poetic genius truly shines, but I like the prose translation mainly because the translator was not bound by the limitations of a verse translation.

Book Review: Lord Jim (1900)

(first published on 9-11-2004) at this location

Lord Jim – Jospeh Conrad (1857-1924)

Original Language: English
Published: 1899-1900 (in serial form)
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (1986); includes an Introduction written by Cedric Watts, as well as notes, a glossary, a timeline concerning the events of the novel, and a map of Southeast Asia
Pages: 307

That Joseph Conrad is recognized as one of the 20th Century’s best authors is quite an achievement, given that English was not his native tongue. His first language was Polish, and his second was French, but to readers of the English language, we are fortunate indeed that he chose to write in his third language. Lord Jim is on the surface a tale of adventure, but lurking not far beneath is a character study that delves deep into the mind of its young protagonist, Jim.

The telling of the story is not linear; that is to say; we learn facets of Jim’s life in bits, skipping time and place. Furthermore, most of Jim’s story is told by Marlowe, his confidant and friend, who also makes appearances in several other of Conrad’s works (including Heart of Darkness). So suffice to say, you may be confused at several points in the reading, but I believe that this method makes the novel much more interesting and thought-provoking; I simply can’t imagine Lord Jim being as effective if it was written in a linear fashion. We start with a view of a simple water-clerk, and over the next 300 or so pages learn bits about his compelling experiences along the way, and are so deftly let into Jim’s mind, that, by the end of the novel, can almost predict his reactions, and ultimately, his fate.

Conrad is viewed as a bridge between the classical and modernist schools of writing, which makes him such a unique literary figure. His enigmatic Heart of Darkness is justifiably known as his greatest work, but Lord Jim is also an outstanding literary achievement for the same reasons; in fact, Conrad had intended for Lord Jim to be a counterpoint to Heart of Darkness and had wanted both to published together along Youth. 

Book Review: The Histories

(first published on 8-20-2004) at this location

The Histories – Herodotus (484-428 BC)

Original Language: Greek

Written: 5th century BC

Genre: History

Translation: George Rawlinson

Volume: Great Books of the Western World, Volume 6 (copy. 1952)

Pages: 314 (roughly 700 paperback-sized pages, as the text is condensed)

Difficulty (from 1 to 10, with 1 being the easiest): 4

This work is considered the world’s first work of history, and is a fantastic introduction to Ancient Greek literature. This isn’t your standard academic history book, however; Herodotus gives very interesting accounts of the various cultures spread across Europe and Asia along the way.

I heartily recommend having a map of the known world circa 450 BC handy when reading The Histories, as you may become lost in some places. Most editions include maps of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Africa with the text, which help immensely with the myriad of place names mentioned by Herodotus. Besides that, the book is pretty accessible without any prior knowledge of ancient history. The book relates mainly the histories of the Greeks and the Persians, with the climax being the two crucial battles between the two; The Battle of Marathon, and the Battle of Salamis. The last three “books” are the most entertaining of the work, as it concerns the clash between the clash of Xerxes’ great invasion force with the (mostly) united Greeks in one of the most pivotal times in the history of civilization. After the conflict with the Persian Empire ended, one of the most remarkable intellectual periods in history began in Athens, judging by who followed Herodotus on my list.

The major difficulty in reading this book is keeping track of place names and people (this site should help). Herodotus sometimes shuttles people in and out and leaves the main storyline for pages at a time in examining side stories. But if you contain your frustrations, by the last third of The Histories, you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.