Saturday, August 25, 2018

Reflections on Leonard Bernstein on his 100th birthday

Anno Domini 1990. I was born. He died. Naturally I’d like to think there’s some prophetic significance to that.

Naturally there isn’t. But as a teenager I remember thinking what a bummer it was that we “just missed each other.” He could still be here, I mused—entertaining the fantasy that we surely would be friends if he were. But no, lung cancer—the result of his excessive smoking—took him from us all too soon. Yes, Leonard Bernstein, the towering, larger-than-life figure, was just human. And, as humans do, he struggled. There were addictions, there were scandals, there was promiscuity—things my conservative friends took joy in pointing out to me during my own teenaged love affair with the maestro. They failed in dampening my enthusiasm.

Perhaps that’s because I struggled too. Don’t we all? And I found solace in his compositions—works that seemed to me to be very human, works that embodied both struggle and redemption. I thought of using the phrase “turmoil and triumph” here, such as we experience in the extremes of, say, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but that doesn’t quite fit. There is not a Bernstein work that I would describe as culminating in unbridled, Beethovenian triumph, but nevertheless there is redemption, there are glimmers of hope, of reconciliation—and these are things that were so often absent from 20th century art. The 20th century—“The Age of Anxiety”—apparently left a lot of people feeling like there was no redemption that could come out of the horrors that racked our little planet.

The redemption we experience in Bernstein’s music is less utopian (or should I say less Elysian?) than Beethoven’s or Schiller’s: it is redemption through and in suffering. You could say it is often a somewhat ambiguous redemption. Some examples from his best-known works come to mind:

At the end of the Mass there is a sense of reconciliation, but not in the sense than anybody has really triumphed, not in the sense that the big questions have been answered, but rather in the acceptance of the apparent truth: that the questions can’t really be answered—at least not in the way that everyone wants. There’s a certain resignation in it. There is still pain, there are still questions, but there is peace. We sense the peace in the music, but we also sense the lack of complete resolution, both in the dissonance-inflected canon that everyone sings (reprising the text “Lauda, laudé”) and in the reprisal of the very somber and enigmatic chorale “Almighty Father” that closes the nearly 3-hour-long work.

There is reconciliation in West Side Story, when the two gangs realize that violence wasn’t the answer to their problems. But we are still left with the reality that Tony is dead and that no amount of reconciliation between the gangs is going to bring him back. Bernstein captures this bitter-sweetness in an extraordinary way in the last bars of the score: he brings back motives from two of the show’s most heartfelt and tender songs: “I Have a Love”—now slightly disfigured by chromaticism—and “Somewhere,” with its hopeful leap of a 7th (a nod, perhaps, to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto). Underneath, we hear a slow, steady death knell, as it were: a repeated note played by the low strings and timpani. In the end, we are left, unexpectedly, with a very soft C-flat major triad, played high in the register by strings and woodwinds; the “death knell,” meanwhile, continues to sound on the note F, adding it’s dissonant sting to the pure triad above.

There is certainly triumph at the end of the film On the Waterfront, in that incredible scene—for me, one of the most spine-tingling moments in all cinema—when a bloodied and bruised Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) ignores his pain and the taunts of Johnny Friendly as he struggles to his feet and marches from the docks into the garage. In the increasingly intense music we hear his immense determination, immense resolve, and indeed immense triumph—but we also hear his immense pain. Bernstein manages to give us both pain and triumph in equal measure—something not many composers have achieved so convincingly.

We can even look at examples in Bernstein’s lighter, comical works. The music at the end of Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow,” seems almost too emotional compared to the silliness of the rest of the show. But this unexpected weightiness is really ingenious, in that it reflects the sort of “coming of age” that the characters finally experience. After all their disastrous wanderings in search of pleasure and adventure, the beleaguered and disillusioned main characters conclude to resign themselves to a simple, unglamorous life together. To Pangloss’s apparently rhetorical closing line, “Any questions?” the answer must actually be “Yes”—there are many unanswered questions, but we have decided to be content with the slight heaviness in not getting to know everything.

Bernstein was apparently regarded by many as a lightweight, and on the surface he did sometimes seem so—both in his flamboyant persona, his unapologetic showmanship, and the outwardly trivial affect of some of his compositions. But too many people failed to realize that there was depth hidden in the lightness. Bernstein embodied a kind of dualism, and that to an extraordinary degree: he was light and darkness, he was shallowness and depth, he was Eusebius and Florestan, he was a jazzer and a high-brow musician in tails. And it was almost as though he could be all of these things simultaneously. And the dualism of struggle and redemption, of conflict and peace in his music, well, I can’t help but think that it helped make the idea of peace seem less like a lofty, unattainable dream. No, peace must not be confined to the perfection of Elysian fields.

The man was truly an enigma, and yes, he had his problems, but this we can say for sure: he brought a down-to-earth, realistic brand of hope to the pessimistic musical climate of the 20th century, and his manifold “lightweightness” helped bring light into a lot of people’s lives. On a slightly sentimental note, about 15 years after his death, and fifteen years after my birth, I was one of those people. Honestly, I think the main reason Bernstein had such a big impact on me as a teenager was that he was both “cool” and into the same thing I was into—classical music (if you’ll pardon the overused term—one that seems to point us, again, to Elysium!). I didn’t see myself as cool, and always felt like an outsider. So I guess I’d started to assume that being into classical music just wasn’t cool. Unfortunately, being cool is of paramount importance to a teenage guy, so naturally I had self-esteem issues. But when I discovered Bernstein—the suave, hipster conductor who thought Beethoven was just as great as I did—well, that boosted my self-esteem immeasurably. I began to think, Being nuts about classical music actually is cool, these bozos around me just don’t realize it. They’re the ones who aren’t cool! That was a huge gift to me. So Leonard Bernstein became my hero, in the same way that the current rock stars and actors were for my peers. There are undoubtedly generations of classical musicians who could say the same.

Equally undoubtedly, there is so much more to be said about Leonard Bernstein, but since others who actually knew him can say it more eloquently, I leave you, dear reader with these, my own spontaneous, personal musings. And if you’re not very familiar with Bernstein and his many-sided musical life as a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and political activist, the time is ripe in this his 100th year to explore his legacy, to discover again the depth within the lightness, and to hope that some of the lightness will rub off on us. Heaven knows we need it these days! Bernstein believed in the power of music to help change people’s lives for the better. That’s a legacy worth celebrating and worth carrying forward.

Ethan McGrath
August 25, 2018

Portland, Tennessee

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Website under construction:

Hello friends! Thanks for visiting my page. My website,, is under construction and should be up by early November. In the meantime, here are some relevant links.

My published choral compositions are available from the following sources:

Schott Music
Oxford University Press
Colla Voce Music
Santa Barbara Music Publishing
Alfred Music
Beckenhorst Press
Swirly Music

Recordings of my compositions can be streamed and downloaded at

My CD, An Echo from Willowwood, is available from CD Baby.

Do feel free to contact me with any questions or comments. My email address is

~Ethan McGrath, Composer

Composer Bio:
A composer of diverse influences, Ethan McGrath seeks to write music that will help break down barriers between people and have the potential to convey meaning to anyone who hears it. A requiem entitled That They May Rest, a Missa Brevis, and a Magnificat are among Ethan’s most significant compositions to date, as well as a Te Deum, which was commissioned for the 2018 Southern Division ACDA Conference. His compositions have been featured in workshops by Rodney Eichenberger and have been performed by such choirs as the Capitol Hearings in Washington, DC, the Taipei Chamber Singers, and the Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir. His Nunc Dimittis recently won first prize in the Musica Sacra Nova Competition in Poland and was premiered in July, 2018 by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Ethan holds a BMus in composition from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an MMus in Choral Studies from the University of Cambridge (UK), where he studied conducting under Stephen Layton, Timothy Brown, Graham Ross, and others.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Overprotective "Father" Syndrome

A choral director I know likes to refer to my compositions as my “children” or “babies.” When she’s programmed one of my works she’ll often say, “We'll try to do your baby justice.” Sometimes that means she doesn’t have enough time to let me offer comments about interpretation during rehearsal—so what she’s really trying to say is, “It’ll be okay; trust me.” 

On one occasion I got very flustered when I attended a rehearsal of one of my pieces and the conductor gave me no opportunity to say anything at all—and I had stuff to say. I went home mad and just could not seem to get over it. As I fumed about this, I began to realize just how accurate the analogy was: it's as though my compositions were my kids. I care about them in every single detail, I have a huge amount of emotional energy invested in them, and I want other people to care about them too. When they’re performed anywhere I'm there to show my fatherly support, and I attend the rehearsals to try to make sure they are treated fairly. It hurts badly when they are mistreated. One example that sticks out in my mind is when a high school choir performed one of my pieces at about ten BPM slower than what I had specified in the score. It was agony. Afterwards the director volunteered this explanation: “I know that was a lot slower than what you marked, but the students really liked it that way.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the overprotective father whom prospective boyfriends always hate—as though a given composition were my teenage daughter and the performers were the guys wanting to take her out. Naturally I get really upset if a guy doesn’t treat her well. So far I haven't beaten anyone up, tempting though it has been, because I know performers usually mean well (unlike many teenaged boyfriends) even when they play badly.

Due to the discouragement all this tends to bring, I’ve gone through lengthy phases where I haven’t written any music. I get frustrated when I can’t give all my compositions the exposure I want them to have and they just sit on my shelf and collect dust. I feel like it’s somehow irresponsible to have more kids when I can't provide for the ones I’ve already got.

I know all this sounds silly, especially coming from a guy who’s not a real parent. What do I know, right? But, ignorant though I be, it seems to me that it’s possible to be too protective, to worry and micromanage too much—to the extent that some parents are possessive of their kids. Likewise, I’ve realized that I’m sometimes too possessive of my compositions: This is MY music!

Maybe this is because I’ve been largely self-taught and haven’t often received a lot of input from others about my work. As a teenager I used to show my compositions to my piano teacher, but that was sporadic. My two years at UT Chattanooga were the only time in which I’ve had regular, weekly composition lessons. As much as I loved my professor, I found it frustrating. What I realized in those years was that I much prefer to write at least a first draft of a complete work or movement before I get any feedback on it. I still feel that way. I need the chance to work through and organize the swirling confusion of ideas in my brain. I need to draw my own conclusions and make my own decisions first. Only then do I want to seek input from others. But even when I presented a complete work to my teacher at UT, I was never fully comfortable incorporating his ideas, even when I liked them. I always felt that it would cease to be my work, and that bothered me deeply.

After I graduated in 2014 I simply composed whatever I wanted to and generally didn't bother to ask for input. But another challenge to my way of thinking was on its way, in the form of a guy named Dan Forrest. Dan, in addition to being a well-known composer, works as an editor for Beckenhorst Press. I must confess that during the editing process for my first two publications with Beckenhorst I cam very close to withdrawing both pieces. Dan was asking for some fairly significant changes and, since I was used to having complete control, I was kicking and screaming all the way. But in hindsight I realized that both pieces were significantly better because I listened to Dan’s suggestions.

It's been a long process, but these days I've become less resistant to input from others about my music. Over the past couple of years I've started to view the composition process as less arbitrary and less about “what I want to write.” When I compose, I get this uncanny, almost mystical feeling that, when I come up with a good musical idea, it's future is somehow predetermined—that the completed piece already exists “in the ether” as it were, and it’s up to me not so much to create it as to discover it—to decipher it in all it’s intricate details, bit by bit. It's like putting together a very complex puzzle—as though there were only one “correct” solution.

The little motives that I think of at the beginning of the process—I like to think that they contain within themselves the genetic code that will at length allow a diligent, intuitive composer to construct the entire organism. And since I now view my work less as “my creation” and more as the natural outworking of the fundamental materials, I find that I'm more open to allowing others to help solve the puzzle—at least to help knock off the rough edges that I've missed (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor). That said, I'm very careful that I don't accept suggestions that aren’t in the best interest of the music—and many suggestions that I’ve received aren’t. It takes somebody who is able to get inside of the piece and figure out what it wants to be, irrespective of what I want it to be or what anybody else wants it to be.

Alice Parker often says that you have to understand the implications of what you’re setting in motion when you start writing a piece. Occasionally I find that other people understand the implications of my own musical ideas better than I do. It’s been very hard to accept, but it’s been an extraordinarily valuable realization— it has made me a less selfish person and a less controlling “parent.” Thanks, Dan Forrest!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

On Beethoven, Yosemite, and Pebbles in a Creek

This is the script for a “lecture-recital” I offered at Southern Adventist University on May 25, 2014. I had often said that nature was a source of inspiration for me as a composer, but I’d never thought about how to articulate what I meant by that. In 2013, while I was still an undergraduate at UT Chattanooga, the University PR department wanted to interview me and write an article about my “successes” as a composer. One of the questions they asked me was this: “The bio on your website says that you’re inspired by nature; what do you mean by that?” As I always do when I don’t know what to say, I turned to my trusted friends, Messrs. Hemming and Hawing, who never fail to buy me a least a few seconds to come up with an answer. Unfortunately, I discovered that I needed a lot more than a few seconds this time. In the end, it took about a year for me to formulate it in my mind. The PR department had long since written the article and moved on to more interesting subjects, so I booked a local recital hall and offered my conclusions to anyone who would come listen.

A caveat, if I may: the term “lecture,” which I used to refer to this event in 2014, tends to suggest something rather academic and scholarly; this talk was neither of those. It was simply a lighthearted, sometimes tongue-in-cheek expression of my personal way of thinking about the composition process. I do hope that my sophomoric analogies can be excused; I took entirely too much delight in cooking them up and taking them too far.


[Beethoven’s “Für Elise” performed]

What is it about that work, and Beethoven’s music in general, that has so captivated the world? Leonard Bernstein provided the most convincing answer we are likely to find, though it ironically isn’t much of an answer. Still, it’s about as good as we can do: “Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven.”[1] So what is Bernstein really saying here? Why is Beethoven so peerlessly captivating, so enduring, so un-ignorable? We don’t know. He just is.

In fact, one could list many reasons why Beethoven’s music shouldn’t be interesting. In fact, leading up to the above statement about Beethoven’s “rightness,” Bernstein himself cited all sorts of reasons: his melodies are often dull, his harmonies consist almost entirely of “the three or four most common chords in western music,”[2] his vocal music makes completely unreasonable demands on the singers, he tends to go on and on, etc. One can make a convincing case for Beethoven’s mediocrity on paper, but somehow when we actually hear the music, the argument melts away. That’s because Beethoven understood that manmade rules, techniques, theories, and rhetoric can only get us so far. They are merely a means to an end, and if they get in the way of nature, it is time to dispense with them. There is a higher order. In essence, Beethoven has earned (from many people) the title “greatest composer who ever lived” not because of his melodies, harmonies, forms, etc., but because of his intuition.

When Bernstein said “you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant,” he may have been underlining a difficulty every composer faces when writing music: what to do next. Often the most terrifying part of the composition process is the very beginning—the blank sheet of paper. It’s really hard to think of a good idea. But even after the first idea is scribbled down, we scarcely have time to breathe a self-congratulatory sigh of relief before the question comes again: “What now?” There are still infinite possibilities. It’s a little like the feeling of being on the cereal aisle at the supermarket. How on earth do you decide which cereal to buy? But with composition it’s even worse: it’s as though the cereal aisle is so long that you can’t see the end of it. Now, when you’re on the cereal aisle, you can choose to buy any and as much cereal as you wish. However, if you are concerned at all about health, there are probably only a few cereals that you actually should buy. In essence, there are only a few “right” cereals, and these are the natural ones. Indeed, you may have to search high and low to find them, especially in our proverbial aisle of infinite length. And so it is with music: there are infinite possibilities, but there are very few “right” ones. What sets Beethoven apart, then, is that he managed to find the organic bran flakes in the infinite isle of Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs—every time.

While this scenario may sound discouraging, it is much better than wandering down the aisle aimlessly. At least we can have a purpose: I am going to find the bran flakes if it’s the last thing I do. With perseverance, they can be found. And this is perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Beethoven on writing effective music: While there are infinite musical possibilities, there are very few right ones, and the right ones are the most natural ones.[3]

Folk Song as Inspiration

Now, even when a composer thinks he has finished a composition, he may sit back in comfortable pride to listen to the fruits of his labor—but the warm, fuzzy feelings are often mitigated by his intrusive intuition that says, “something is not right about this.” Alice Parker references a stream at her New England farm as a metaphorical ideal for her music. She wants her music to flow naturally, uninterrupted by hiccups. A composer can sit down and write a piece that makes wonderful sense on paper, but when he hears it, a good composer knows when something is not right. Maybe a couple of extra measures need to be inserted after bar 26, maybe a dot should be added to the soprano quarter note in measure 30, maybe the last chord should be held a trifle longer. Sometimes the minutest details can make a huge difference in the way a work is perceived. When the composer senses that something is not quite right, sometimes it is no small trick to find the problem and fix it. Why? Because it takes intuition. There are no magic formulas. Beethoven agonized over his scores, making corrections over and over again and scattering splotches of ink across the page.[4]

Yet in light of all the effort I put into making my compositions “flow,” I find myself more than a little envious when I consider the effortless flow of a good folksong. What could be more beautiful than a tune like the English “O Waly Waly” (“The Water is Wide”) or a spiritual like “Give Me Jesus”? Since folksongs usually do not have a known composer and have been handed down from generation to generation, they have been unconsciously crafted by the intuition of the generations of people who have sung them. Perhaps these enduring melodies start out like a rough stone that is cast into a stream. As the waters carry it along over miles and miles its rough edges are gradually smoothed. When it finally comes to rest it is no longer the rough stone it once was, but round, smooth, and sometimes almost polished. The folksong is created by natural processes over a long period of time and therefore feels natural, or right.

On the other hand, the 21st-century composer who has to have a new piece done to meet a deadline in two weeks finds himself forced to engage in a fairly unnatural process. He has to take the ruff, jagged rock and make it round, smooth, and polished without the help of the river or a long period of time. Not only that, but he has to come up with his own rock to begin with. All too often the end result of his labors is still a rough rock, but some are so skilled that they can produce a stone so perfectly round, smooth, and polished that it fairly gleams. Others, unsatisfied with even this, go to the extreme of dying the stone a psychedelic color and dusting it with glitter. So we have three common outcomes: the rough stone, the perfect stone, and the gaudy stone. Unfortunately, none of these are ideal. If our ideal is to make a craft appear and feel at least somewhat natural, this eliminates the latter two options as being so unnatural that they seem fake and thus inhuman in effect. As for the first option, while a rough rock is perfectly natural, if we both start and end with a rough rock, the exercise was pointless—we might as well have stayed in bed. As is so often the case, the best ground is the middle ground, but it is hard to find at times. In an age when we are surrounded by, and perpetually bombarded with, the unnatural it is difficult to imitate nature in any kind of organic way. Our natural intuition has been weakened.

In order to find this hallowed middle ground of art that is both crafted and “natural” in effect, many composers have turned to folksong for inspiration. A notable example is the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my biggest role models. He was not only a composer but also a collector of folksongs. In other words, he went out into the countryside and listened to the farmers and shepherds, people of the land, singing their songs, and wrote down what he heard. Thus the essence of English folksong seems to have seeped into his inner being; his compositions, even those that do not quote folk music directly, seem to organically embody the spirit of English folk music. “Organically” is the keyword here; I use it to refer to music that feels unforced, uncontrived—music that flows like Alice Parker’s stream. By way of example, I will now play a seldom-heard piano work by Vaughan Williams—a real rarity, as Vaughan Williams wrote very little piano music (in fact, this may even be a Chattanooga premiere).[5]

[Vaughan Williams’ Suite of Six Short Pieces performed]

Inspiration from Nature Itself

Folksong is music of the land—a reflection of a rustic, simpler, more natural life than most of us now lead. Folksongs are shaped by many factors, including the customs, traditions, and folkways of the people who create and sing them, and Bernstein has suggested that the music of folksongs is derived from the unique sounds of the language of the words to which they are wedded.[6] I also believe that much folksong reflects the natural beauty of the land itself. It is not surprising that the sweeping melodic curves and effortless flow of “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”) originated with a people whose soul was rooted in the undulating hills and smooth-flowing streams of Ireland’s County Derry (it is certainly difficult to imagine such music coming from a harsh polar region). I therefore suggest, mystical and impractical as it may sound, that composers can turn not only to the music of the land (folksong) for inspiration, but also to the very land itself.

Beethoven himself was a great lover of nature and spent countless hours taking walks in the countryside. Time spent in quiet observation of an unspoiled natural environment can do more to instill in an artist a sense of natural intuition than any amount of book learning. In nature, we can observe the way everything works together—“in harmony.” When something is taken out of its natural environment, things go awry. When a foreign species is introduced into an environment in which it does not belong, things go awry. This is the balance of nature. This concept can also be applied to music: To add or remove an element from a Beethoven work is to diminish its beauty and its symbiotic functionality.

This is equally true of Brahms, also a great lover of nature, whose late piano works are so tightly integrated that the smallest of details are of upmost importance. Each of those pieces is like a wayside flower: it seems simple on the surface, but, the closer we examine it, the more layers of intricate beauty we find. It’s mindboggling. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that “
Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:29). Let’s take an example from the famous Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. Here’s the opening motive:

This is like the glue—or the DNA, if you will—that holds the composition together. We find it in various forms all through the piece, expounded upon in long melodic lines like this:
…or hidden away in the background like this:
…or wearing a disguise such as this:
The uppermost voice here is an inversion of the opening motif—in other words an upside-down version of it. The other notes here are significant too, which becomes clear when we unpack this onto three staves, revealing the inner imitation:
Yes, all of the above is derived from that simple opening motive, and this is only scratching the surface; there are many, many more examples that could illustrate the immense complexity of this music. And yet it outwardly seems simple, unadorned, and profoundly right, like the roadside daisy.

[Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2 performed]

Given that composers like Brahms seemed to reflect principles of nature in their music, it is interesting to note that people often respond to music in the same way they respond to nature. For instance, an early visitor to the Yosemite Valley wrote this of his experience:

"It has been said that ‘it is not easy to describe in words the precise impressions which great objects make upon us.’ I cannot describe how completely I realized this truth. None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley, can even imagine the feeling with which I looked upon the view that was there presented. The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley—light as gossamer—and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. The obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."[7]

Likewise, how often has it been said that we cannot with words explain the effect great music has on us? Try as we might, we’re almost always at a loss. To quote Bernstein again: “We bumble. We imitate the scientific method in our attempts to explain magic phenomena by fact, forces, mass, energy. But we simply can’t explain human reaction to these phenomena. Science can ‘explain’ thunderstorms, but can it ‘explain’ the fear with which people react to them?” Or, using the example of Yosemite, geology can explain how that valley came to be, but can it explain the awe, “the peculiar sensation” that people feel when the see it? Bernstein continues: “But some people have ‘explained’ the glory of a thunderstorm—now and then, with varying degrees of success—and such people are called poets. Only artists can explain magic; only art can substitute for nature.”[8]

This is probably not exactly what Bernstein had in mind when he said that, but it begs the question: Though I may not be able to explain in words the feeling of being in the Yosemite Valley, could I replicate at least some inkling of that particular emotion in a musical composition? I think so. To be clear, I am not suggesting anything as hokey as writing music that sounds like Half Dome looks or creating a sonic equivalent of El Capitan; I am merely out to express the emotion I felt when I was there. In fact, if I do my job well, I will not have to give my composition a silly extra-musical title like “Yosemite Symphony” (tempting though it be). Even if I called it “Music in E-flat” I would still have a better shot at invoking in my listeners the feelings of exaltation I had in Yosemite than if I just used words. They don’t even have to know that it was Yosemite that induced those feelings in me unless I feel that it would benefit them to know that. I am not trying to invoke Yosemite; I am trying to reproduce the feeling I had when I was there.

That seems to be more or less what Beethoven was trying to do with his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral” Symphony. Though he did use extra-musical titles like “Awakening of Happy Thoughts Upon Arriving in the Countryside” and “Scene by the Brook,” he said that the Symphony was an “expression of feelings rather than depiction.”[9] In other words, it was apparently Beethoven’s attempt to musically embody the feelings induced in him by the wonders of the countryside—rather than an effort to “paint” the countryside with notes. So perhaps we can be so daring as to suggest that by listening to the Symphony we can feel at least a shade of the particular emotions Beethoven himself experienced while wandering in the countryside

The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was also a great lover of nature. “He was deeply patriotic and loved not only the folk-songs and poetry of Scandinavia but even the very scenery. He delighted to go boating on the fjords, or make excursions into the country, whether during the brief but flowering Northern summer or during the long snowbound winters with their dark and stormy days.”[10] Thus the essence of the countryside was subsumed into the composer and flowed out in an abundance of lovely, quintessentially Norwegian music. As with Beethoven’s Symphony, I like to think that Grieg’s music, over a century after his death, can transmit to us not the beauty of Norway directly, but what the beauty of Norway meant to the composer—how it made him feel. I admit that there’s no way to be certain about any this, but I get excited at the thought that maybe music can cross time, oceans, and cultural barriers to make us feel an emotion that somebody felt over 100 years ago—something that was so special that he took the time and effort to preserve it in a musical form so that we here, today, could feel it too. Call me a helpless romantic; I’ll take that label.

[Grieg’s Nocturne, Op. 54, No. 9 performed]

To return to my silly analogy from the beginning, this all goes back to trying to find the organic bran flakes on the seemingly infinite isle of Cocoa Puffs and Captain Crunch—of trying to get at what’s most natural. I’m sure composers have many ways of coming at this; I have discussed some of these, as I see them, inasmuch as I believe such discussion sheds light on the possible reasons that some music endures the test of time and some doesn’t—why some music has depth and some doesn’t. I once heard Alice Parker say that “good music empowers us; commercialized music seeks to exert power over us.” The music of Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, et al. can empower us in much the same way that nature itself can empower us. And I believe that artists who learn the lessons of nature become pupils of the Supreme Artist, although some have entered his school unknowingly. They can learn from no greater fount of wisdom.

But all too often we are satisfied with Fruit Loops…

[1] Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 29.
[2] Ibid, 25.
[3] I did not mean to suggest a morality of music—that some styles are inherently “right” and some “wrong”—but was referring to the decisions a composer makes in the composition process, where there are very few options that are “right” in the sense that they feel like the natural outworking of the composer’s initial musical idea(s).
[4] For an example from the Symphony No. 6, see “Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827),” British Library, (accessed October 27, 2017).
[5] Vaughan Williams’ Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano remains obscure, but there is also a version for string orchestra (arranged by the composer), bearing the title Charterhouse Suite, which is more widely known.
[6] Leonard Bernstein, Young People’s Concerts (1962; repr., New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 166-171.
[7] Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, “Yosemite 1851,” in First to the Parklands, ed. Jeffrey Eling (Santa Barbara, CA: The Narrative Press, 2003), 143-151.
[8] Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 13.
[9] Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980), 538
[10] This quotation is from the introductory comments (author not specified) for Edvard Grieg, “Nocturne in C Major,” 1891, Op. 54, No. 4 (Cincinnati, OH: The Willis Music Company, 1942).

Thursday, October 5, 2017

On 'Sad' Music...

Occasionally an encounter with a member of the musical public leaves me feeling that I'm very out of touch with the way many people perceive music. On one such occasion an elderly gentlemen told me that he has ceased listening to the local classical station because they play nothing but “sad music.” I was a little surprised at this. Mozart, Haydn? Really?  He proceeded to ask me, “Did the great composers have a lot of sadness in their lives?” I hesitated, not sure how to answer such a broad question. Interrupting my hemming and hawing, he continued: “I’ve got enough sadness in my life as it is. I don’t need music adding to it. I listen to the gospel station now.”

I didn’t know what to say to him. It was one of those moments that make me doubt the flowery, idealistic rhetoric I’ve been using about music in recent years—about how it can bring us together, make the world a better place, make us more tolerant, egalitarian, what have you. It also makes me doubt a line that I once used in a bio about myself: “Ethan seeks to write music that will break down barriers between people and have the potential to convey a depth of meaning to anyone who hears it.” Anyone? That’s saying an awful lot; perhaps I’ve given myself too much to live up to. What stings is that, though I can’t prove it, I’m virtually positive that if my music were widely known enough to be played on classical radio, the chap mentioned above would have dismissed it along with all the rest. If Beethoven doesn’t cut the mustard, than I surely don’t.

This all begs the question: Is it really possible to know how other people perceive music? To some extent, yes, based on what they say about it and how they act when they hear it. But we can’t know in any kind of detailed way—not short of actually becoming somebody else. That’s a little sad because, as a composer, I’m dying to know how other people hear my music. Now, we are often told that there is one way to know when music has struck a chord (pardon the metaphor) that resounds on a seemingly universal level—something that does seem to convey meaning to just about everybody. And that’s time. The passage of time—generally a lot of it—is the only way to know which of the vast number of musical darts thrown at the wall resonate with the human psyche well enough to stick. That’s why names like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms remain with us today, while most of their rivals have faded into obscurity.

But here’s the problem: the names that have “stuck” are the composers whose music is being played on classical radio today—and therefore it’s the music that my elderly friend dismisses as “sad” and changes the channel. And we can be sure that he isn’t the only one to search the airwaves for sunnier sounds. How do we account for this?

I don’t think I can answer that, but I would like to offer a bit of speculation. Let me start out with a confession: I very rarely listen to classical radio either. Why not? For starters, I never know what’s going to be playing when I hit the “on” button. The chances that it’s going to be something that fits where I am and what I’m doing at the moment are pretty slim. Is The Rite of Spring something that I really want to hear while careening down I-75 when I’m late to work? It’s like dropping the needle on a record with no label on it. It could be Mozart, it could be Mark O’Connor. And am I really capable of taking in something as complex as, say, Bach’s Mass in B Minor while answering emails? And even if I stop what I’m doing and give it the attention it deserves, do I really want to start it halfway through the ‘Credo’? And what are the odds that a random Tuesday morning at 9:13am will find me mentally prepared for something so rich, so profound as that Mass? When you get transported to heaven in such a fiery chariot as that, it’s very difficult to come back down and go about the day’s mundane tasks when it’s over.

So I can in some ways resonate with the guy who has changed his radio loyalties. But how about this word “sad”? Is all of this music really sad? To go back to the Bach example, I don’t think anyone would argue that the ‘Crucifixus’ is about as sad as it gets. But isn’t it just as likely that our friend would turn his radio on during the explosively jubilant ‘Et resurrexit’—something he would apparently dismiss with all the rest of the “sad” music? Perhaps the problem, then, is one of terms: maybe he uses the blanket term “sad” because he doesn’t understand the music—he’s not given any context, he doesn’t understand the words, where the music came from or where its going, what the music is “about,” and maybe not even who wrote it. It goes by in a blur of profundity, and he intuitively feels that he was supposed to get something out of it, but somehow didn’t. Perhaps that translates as sadness, I don’t know.

The ideal solution, however, is not necessarily to throw up one’s hands and change the channel to a station that’s playing “Happy Rhythm.” The ideal solution, unfortunately, takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. You’ve got to know in advance that while Bach’s Goldberg Variations might prove to be nice background music while you’re painting your house, his St. Matthew Passion is probably not. And you’re probably not going to get anything out of the latter if you don’t know the plot it follows and if you don’t put some effort into understanding what Bach was trying to accomplish with the music he clothed it in. It doesn’t necessarily require musical training, just some time and effort.

If we find the motivation to get to know great music, we can be in a position to decide what sort of music our souls need at any given time. So I very rarely turn on the radio, and I very rarely bother with background music. I want to choose what I listen to and really concentrate on it, giving it the attention that I hope people will give to my compositions. (It always burns me up when I’m at a party or something and someone says, “Play us one of your compositions,” and then proceeds to keep chatting with her friends as I comply with her request). We mustn’t let all our encounters with music be happenstantial or we will more than likely have a shallow musical experience.

But suppose for a moment that my elderly friend was accurate in his use of terms; suppose that the station really did play nothing but the most devastatingly tragic music Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff had to offer—or, indeed, nothing but ‘Crucifixuses.’ What then? Would our friend be justified in saying, “I’ve got enough sadness in my life as it is” and “I don’t need music adding to it”? Perhaps so. We need balance; we need music that will lift our spirits. But this makes me wonder: Are we sometimes afraid of music that will awaken the grief inside us? Music or no music, the sadness is there in all of us. Some people have more sadness than others, but we all carry grief—over family members or friends who have died, over betrayal or abuse we’ve experienced, over unrequited love, our own failures, the death of past dreams. It’s impossible to get rid of it all, yet society seems to frown on those who openly express it—especially if those people are men. So we learn to hide it.  We stuff it, we ignore it, we pretend it’s not there.

But we find that it’s very hard to pretend it’s not there when we hear, say, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies. They fracture the thin façade that’s holding our inner grief at bay. These are some of the composers who threw darts that stuck; they’ve stood the test of time. Why? They were able to poor into their music a depth of emotion that was, for them, very personal, and yet the passing years have proved it to also be very far reaching: something that gets at the heart of shared human experience. When we listen to the music and let it affect us, we realize that these composers, in giving voice to their own sadness, seemed, miraculously, to be giving voice to ours as well. It’s when we’re willing to open that door, when we stop stuffing it, that healing can begin. I believe very strongly that music can aid that process.

Several years ago a high school choir was slated to sing one of my compositions at an afternoon concert. When I arrived I was told that the concert had been cancelled. One of the students from the high school had died that morning in an accident, and his classmates, shell-shocked, were too upset to sing. I resonated with their grief, but I had to wonder if they had thought through that decision. It seemed to me that they had denied themselves the best coping mechanism I know of: singing. And they weren’t slated to sing a bunch of silly stuff. It was a concert that I believe could have been profoundly healing if they hadn’t been afraid to go ahead with it.

It’s at moments of unexpected tragedy that music has the potential to be most powerful, because it is at these moments that people can no longer pretend that “everything’s fine” like they usually do. At such times, people often say that there are “no words”; indeed, little or nothing can be said that doesn’t seem hollow. But what if the words are given the wings of song? Does “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” seem hollow in the most tragic of times? I think not. A song like that is like a bottomless receptacle for the tears of mankind. We just have to have the courage to sing. We have to have the courage to take music out of its background role and let it help us cope with what life throws at us—let it be a companion on the road to wholeness.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Power of Paradox: Learning to Appreciate Vulnerability in Music

Just some rather eccentrically expressed, philosophical musings I wrote in my journal a couple of years ago, and subsequently expanded.

One day as I was casually reading through music by Robert Schumann at the piano (one of my favorite pastimes), I found the assertive Novelette in B Minor, Op. 99, No. 2, unusually satisfying and, after playing it through, stood up and said to my mother off the cuff, “I like that; it makes me feel powerful!” Sitting back down at the piano I looked across the page at the next work in the Schumann volume, the A-flat-major Phantasiestück (Fantasy Piece), Op. 111, No. 2. I thought to myself, If the other piece makes me feel powerful, how does this one make me feel? For some reason, the word “weak” came to mind. Entering my mind uninvited, as it were, it proceeded to set up shop. Ironically, the word “weak” seemed to be more powerful than my ability to replace it with a more desirable adjective. I could handle something like “elegant,” “childlike,” or perhaps “sensitive”—but “weak”? In any case, the reason for the intrusion of this undesirable adjective does not lie on the surface. After all, the Phantasiestück is not as assertive or virtuosic as the Novelette; it is a quiet, introspective work. But this shouldn’t diminish my power. After all, the act of lifting something light does not of itself decrease a bodybuilder’s strength. However, having played through the Phantasiestück before, I knew at least subconsciously that not all is as it may appear on the surface.

To illustrate the complexity of this, let’s continue the analogy of weightlifting. Suppose that we could convert piano pieces to equivalent weights: the more difficult the music, the heavier the weight. Let’s take two divergent works as examples: “Für Elise” by Beethoven and the “Perpetual Motion” Rondo by Weber. While the latter is a glittering showpiece that bombards the gawking audience-member with a relentless barrage of blistering sixteenth notes, the former is a quiet, unassuming work, demanding no great technical prowess and considered to be among the “easiest” works Beethoven ever wrote. The million-dollar question is: Which of the two would be heavier if we could magically convert them to weights and endeavor to lift them? At this point, you may be thinking that I am going to say “Für Elise” would be the heaviest, simply because that’s not the obvious answer, and I wouldn’t have brought up the scenario had the answer been obvious. You may also be thinking that it is ridiculous to compare music to lifting weights. Nevertheless, in the weightlifting analogy, I think the Weber would be heavier—but I agree that the analogy is ridiculous. Then why did you bring up the analogy? I did so because it draws attention to our subconscious tendency to think in similar terms. We always seem to be searching for some way to measure artistic achievement, as if it were as straightforward as weightlifting.

Unfortunately, we often tend to judge artistic merit on the basis of how thrilling it is. We love a good show: the more action, the more noise, the more fireworks, the more we cheer. It’s obvious how this mindset among consumers has influenced various kinds of “popular” music, but what about “classical” music? Here, too, we see it, if in a somewhat less-pronounced way. For instance, every year, the music department at Southern Adventist University hosts a concerto competition. A handful of students are selected from the finalists to play a movement from a concerto of their choosing with the university orchestra. I’ve attended the concerts many times over the years, ever since I was a kid, and not once have I heard a student play a slow movement. In fact, when we look at the most famous concertos—the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, etc.—we find that the outer movements (especially first movements) are much more famous than the slower, middle movements. The outer movements are flashier, and since we love a good show, they’re the ones we remember after the concert. And you don’t have to attend many concerts before you notice that audiences tend to respond with greater vehemence if the program ends with a “bang.” For instance, I once attended a rather poor performance of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto; but, poor as it was, it ended dramatically and the audience was on its feet. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, by contrast, was unsuccessful at its premiere—not because it was poorly played, but because it ended softly! If you want to get an encore, you have got to end with a flourish—and encores, too, are almost always virtuosic works.

However, it was an unusual encore that really began to influence my thinking on this subject. Vladimar Horowitz provided a famous exception to the “flashy encore rule” when he played Schumann’s “Träumerei” as the final encore at the historic concert that marked his return to Moscow in 1986. According to Horowitz’ record producer, Thomas Frost, “Träumerei epitomizes the powerful effect he could produce with a simple, poetic piece.” Take note of the word powerful here. Frost goes on to quote Horowitz: “‘It may look simple on the page,’ said Horowitz about Träumerei, ‘but it is a masterpiece. The idea that slow lyrical music is easy to play is a common misconception.’” And Horowitz’ performance of the work was very powerful indeed: “An audience camera caught a close-up of a man with a tear slowly running down his cheek while the audience sat enraptured in hushed silence.” This is obviously a deeper brand of power than what I joked about feeling after playing Schumann’s assertive Novelette, which is more akin to what you might feel after beating your bossy mother-in-law at a game of chess or decidedly winning the dinner table argument about politics. But the power that moves people to tears can only be accessed by the musicians who are willing to feel vulnerable. I don’t know how Horowitz felt when he played pieces like Schumann’s “Träumerei” or the “Phantasiestück” I talked about earlier—whether he felt any “weakness” like I do, but I am encouraged by a story he related to Frost:

“Then he [Horowitz] recalled an incident which supposedly took place in the famous piano class of Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna. It seems that a young virtuoso came to town and, upon being asked to play for the class, stunned everyone with a phenomenal display of virtuosity. The most difficult music seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers. He kept this up for quite some time without as much as a drop of perspiration on his brow. When he had finished the astonishing performance, someone wistfully asked that he play a simple piece by Schumann, such as Träumerei. Obligingly, the young virtuoso complied. After four bars he was perspiring profusely.”

This is what I like to call the “power of paradox,” a phrase coined by singer-songwriter Michael Card (albeit in a different context). The piece is simple and lyrical, yet difficult to play; I feel powerful and in control when I play dramatic, virtuosic music—provided I’ve practiced enough, but I often feel weak and vulnerable when I play simple, lyrical music. No amount of rehearsing can fully eliminate that feeling. One reason for the vulnerable feeling is that relatively small blunders can really mess up the general effect of something like“Träumerei.” Small blunders are not nearly as big a deal in most of, say, Rachmaninoff’s music, as they tend to fade into the great washes of virtuosic sound. Yet there is a still-deeper level to this vulnerability. Schumann’s music seems unusually personal, and came from the heart of a deeply troubled man who attempted suicide and was thereafter committed to an asylum. Thus his music often reflects a certain anxiety and struggle, a split personality, sometimes a sense of resignation, and yet often a profound since of nobility, of serenity and peace that Schumann must have deeply desired. Schumann’s music is tied to the human condition, and when we perform or even simply listen to his music, I like to think we feel some of the same vulnerability that Schumann himself did when he wrote it.

That can make us uncomfortable, whether we’re the people playing the music or just listening to it. For me, playing something like “Träumerei” at a concert is a bit like opening up and telling people something very personal about myself. That’s hard for me, not because the words themselves are difficult to utter, but because, like it or not, I’m afraid of what people might think of my inmost thoughts and feelings—and I’m afraid that I’ll fail to express them adequately. But when I have been willing to be open and vulnerable about what I think and feel and struggle with, people almost always respond warmly. They say things like “Thank you for being open” and “I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who felt that way”; sometimes they cry. It immediately breaks through the thin façade of “everything’s fine” that we feel obliged to put up around ourselves, and we instantly feel closer to one another. Music can do the same thing for us on a level that words can’t always reach, if we’re willing to pay attention to the music that expresses itself in the simplest, most unadorned, and, yes, most vulnerable way—music that doesn’t really seem to be trying to be or do accomplish anything in particular, nor even seem to offer any obvious “reasons” for its existence; music that seems to simply say, “This is who I am.

Yes, in our tendency judge music and musicians on the basis of virtuosity and charisma we often miss the boat. It’s the immeasurable aspects of music—the heart and soul—that truly make it meaningful. It’s an enigma, really—almost like magic. And since we want something concrete, that’s hard for us to accept. But when we have the courage to try—the courage to be open, we find that it’s infinitely worth it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Tom Hammett

In the summer of 2015 I was a jobless “bum” and couldn’t decide what to do with my life. Naturally, the chance to earn a little cash was appealing, so when I was asked to fill in for the regular pianist at Brainerd Presbyterian Church one Sunday in July, I accepted. I had no idea just how significant that choice would prove to be.

I was treated like a rock star as soon as I walked in the door; I’ve never encountered a more friendly, welcoming, and appreciative group of people. The music director, Tom Hammett, and I quickly became good friends. I went back to the church several times that summer and was always greeted with the same enthusiasm. Tom asked me to do a piano concert at the church and, thanks largely to his behind-the-scenes efforts, it drew a large crowd. I had never walked away from a concert with so many donations nor had I ever sold more CDs at a single event.

Tom became my unofficial PR agent—“unofficial” only because I was too poor to pay him anything! He promoted my performances widely and wrote rave reviews about them. He also went to great lengths to introduce me to all the famous musicians he knew—which turned out to be a great many indeed! And when I occasionally get a friend request on Facebook from a well-known musician or impresario, I have to smile and think, Ah… Tom has been at it again.

In the spring of 2016 I found out that I had been accepted to a masters program at the University of Cambridge, a place I’d dreamed of going to for years. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough money and I hadn’t received the scholarships I’d applied for. So I decided to pick the collective brain of Facebook, not expecting anything to come of it. In a public post I asked if anyone might have ideas about potential sources of funding, such as scholarships I wasn’t aware of. A few days later I received a message from Tom: “I may have found a source for nearly HALF of your tuition funds! This is BIG!!!!”

Sure enough, he had. Unbeknownst to me, he’d been busily working behind the scenes and had found an incredibly generous member of his church who had heard me play and wanted to support me. And he didn’t stop there. He went on to assist in organizing a large-scale fundraiser concert on my behalf, and setup a scholarship fund for me through his church, Brainerd Presbyterian. As it turns out, he’s good at more than just music and networking. After the concert, he put on his accounting hat and processed the many donations that came in.

It was also due to Tom’s networking that I was able to attend the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association this year, which turned out to be a valuable opportunity to make new connections and gain more exposure for my compositions. Tom found someone who offered to cover my airfare—the same generous donor, in fact, who’d contributed to my Cambridge fund.

Due to the often-overwhelming amount of competition, my chosen career path is not one that is easy to get into—unless you have people who are willing to help you in a big way. When I met Tom in 2015 I was very discouraged at the lack of interest and rejection my work had often met with—from publishers, conductors, competitions, etc. Tom, with his unbridled enthusiasm about my music, came on the scene at just the right time. His support has been a huge encouragement and has helped me reach major career goals I could not have otherwise achieved. And, because of Tom, I’ve set another goal: I want to learn to be as encouraging as he is and as willing to lend a helping hand to others.


This is the fifth in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.