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  • Graham Abbott

Occasional Music

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

Ever gone to a birthday party and wished you could come up with a gift that would just blow everyone away? A gift that would have people saying, “How did you come up with that?” What if you managed to come up with something like this? [listen]


That amazing music is JS Bach’s name-day present to a university lecturer, and in those days your name day was as big a deal as your birthday. It's a cantata called The Pacified Aeolus, or Aeolus Appeased (in German: Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus, BWV205) and it’s a perfect example of the sort of thing I’m looking at in this article: music inspired by special occasions or events. Ever since music was invented, composers have provided music for special events, either on their own or as a result of being commissioned. Music to mark a birthday, to celebrate a victory, to lament the loss of someone special… all of these sorts of events and many more besides could be the impetus for the creation of a new piece of music.


The Catholic and Protestant tensions which had plagued Britain a great deal in the late 17th century resurfaced in the middle of the 18th when in 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart – the Young Pretender, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie – marched south from Catholic Scotland with his army, intent on reclaiming the British throne for the exiled Stuarts. Panic set in in London and despite the eventual defeat of the Pretender by the British army under the Duke of Cumberland, the political situation remained tense and uncertain. In London, patriotic fervour grew enormously amidst the confusion, and Handel responded to this environment by writing what is probably his most occasional piece of occasional music, appropriately called The Occasional Oratorio.


Denner: George Frideric Handel (c. 1727)

This work sets a collection of texts from the Bible which describe victory over the enemy, the support of God for the righteous, and the importance of faith. It’s a work that is full of glorious music, much of it recycled from other works because it was written in a hurry, but there are magical sections, like this one from the first act: “Be wise at length, ye kings averse, be taught, ye judges of the earth, with fear Jehovah serve”. [listen]


Of course, much music has been written over the ages to mark sad things, particularly to mourn the death of a particular person. In 1521, the Flemish composer Josquin Desprez died. He was widely respected during his life as a major composer, as he undoubtedly was, and one of his contemporaries, Hieronymus Vinders, marked his death with the composition of a moving motet. O mors inevitabilis (O inevitable death) is subtitled “A Lament on the Death of Josquin”. The text is translated: "O inevitable death, bitter death, cruel death. When you killed Josquin Desprez, you took from us the man who, through his music, enlightened the church." [listen]


From 1521 we move on to the 1990s, and the music of the American singer/songwriter Tori Amos. I think the connections between that motet of Vinders and this next song are astounding. The emotions are the same and the musical language is not as remote as one might expect. This song by Tori Amos uses only voice and piano. Tori Amos is deeply personal in her music, and she writes openly and candidly about experiences which can be confronting for us. For example, growing up the daughter of a preacher led to her to write songs which are highly critical of the hypocrisy she perceives in established religion, and the experience of being a raped by an armed fan as she drove him home from a concert is the subject of another of her songs. Tori is an excellent pianist; she trained at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and was expelled for having the audacity to improvise and play by ear on occasion. Musically, she uses things that put her very much in the “serious” music category: in one of her songs she uses a prepared piano (a phenomenon where objects are attached to the strings to give the piano a haunting, percussive quality) and in many songs she plays the harpsichord instead of the piano.


Tori Amos (1996)

Written in the mid-90s, her song Merman is an example of how  song can be written for one event can afterwards become associated with something else. Merman was originally written as an expression of her love for her husband after the trauma of a miscarriage. In an interview she called her husband “a man with such deep integrity that I married him”. But in October 1998, while performing this song in concerts on tour, there was a shocking murder in Wyoming. An openly gay student, Matthew Shepard, was entrapped, tortured and murdered in what was clearly an anti-gay hate crime. On the tour, Tori performed this song with a dedication to Matthew Shepard and the association between him and this song is now firmly established among her fans. [listen]


It takes a composer of special genius to make a work of art from the combination of elements others would have thought incompatible. Take for example the situation in which Benjamin Britten found himself at the start of the 1960s. The old cathedral in the English city of Coventry had been bombed in the second world war. The new cathedral, a vast modern edifice designed by Basil Spence, was being built not on the site of old cathedral but right next to it, with the ruins of the old building maintained as a constant memorial to the destruction of war. The new cathedral was, and still is, a centre of prayer devoted to international peace and reconciliation. Britten, the major British composer of his day and a pacifist, had been commissioned to write a work for the opening of the new building, and the result, War Requiem, is to my mind one of the most important works of the 20th century.


Benjamin Britten (1968)

Another composer might have written a work lamenting the death of those who fell in war, but Britten went further than this, writing a work that interpolates antiwar poetry of Wilfred Own into the text of the Latin mass for the dead. The result is a powerful, overwhelming indictment of war and the hypocrisy of the establishment. It has at its core a setting of Owen which is juxtaposed with the Latin Agnus Dei. The Latin is translated, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, grant them rest”. The Owen poetry describes the crucifixion of Jesus in damning terms for those in authority; the priests and scribes bawl allegiance to the state and only the soldiers on duty remain faithful to Christ. The poem ends, “But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate”. [listen]


Let’s now change the mood completely. The young Beethoven, when he was not quite 20 years old and still living in Bonn, the city of his birth, wrote two occasional cantatas which are virtually unknown today. The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II, and its companion piece, the Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II, are works of astounding maturity for a composer who was still a decade away from writing his first symphony. The Leopold cantata contains an extraordinary aria written in full operatic showstopper mode, for soprano with solo flute and cello. The text is gushy and over the top, as one would expect, and Beethoven dresses it in music of great virtuosity. The soprano sings: “Flow, tears of joy, flow! Do you not hear the angels’ greeting above you? Germany! Do you not hear the angels’ greeting sounding as sweet as the harp’s whisper? Far away I saw Jehovah crowning him with blessing on Olympus”. [listen]


In more recent times, composers have worn their hearts on their sleeves often, when it comes to using their skills to express their feelings on subjects that are close to them.


The American composer John Corigliano is a major figure in contemporary American music. Born in 1938, he wrote his first symphony in 1989 as a memorial to friends who died of AIDS. In his own words: “My first symphony was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration”. Corigilano wrote the symphony after seeing the AIDS Quilt, a massive quilt consisting of thousands and thousands of panels, each of which represents a person who died of AIDS. The symphony is vast, complex, and very moving, but I'll link here the first movement, called “Of Rage and Remembrance”, which alternates outbusts of intense anger with periods of nostalgic remembrance, in this case, of a concert pianist who was a friend of the composer and who was a victim of AIDS. At one point you’ll hear a piano in the distance, as if in a memory, playing Albéniz’s Tango, a specific reference to the pianist’s favourite piece. [listen]


John Corigliano

If you get the chance to hear the whole of that piece, you’ll find it an extraordinary experience.


Much closer to home, and staying with the devastation of AIDS, the father figure of Australian composition, Peter Sculthorpe, turned to the sound of the unaccompanied cello when he wrote his Threnody in 1992. Designed in particular for the skills of the Australian cellist David Pereira, this work was written in response to death of the Australian conductor Stuart Challender, who died of AIDS in December 1991. Threnody is based on a melody from Sculthorpe’s Kakadu, which Challender had recorded with the Sydney Symphony, and it was written for performance at the conductor’s memorial service. The term “threnody” is derived from a Greek word which means a lament, a song of grief, or a dirge. [listen]


Peter Sculthorpe

To most lovers of classical music, the name Trent Reznor will most likely be unfamiliar. That’s ok, it was to me too until not so long ago, but of late my musical horizons have been expanding a great deal and I’m becoming more and more excited about the resonances I’m encountering in music of all sorts, not just classical music. The discovery of Trent Reznor is part of this journey for me and I want to share it with you.


Trent Reznor (1991)

Trent Reznor is the lead singer in a rock group called Nine Inch Nails. Their sound is sometimes classified as “industrial” rock but there are songs in the group’s output which aren’t of the aggressively loud variety. Reznor’s famed outbursts of anger, fuelled by depression, are the backbone of much of his music, but in 1997, while working on the album The Fragile, Reznor’s grandmother died. She had raised him and his deep sense of loss led him to write a song called The Great Below. The personal origins of the song are unmistakable, and the build up to a heart-rending climax is incredibly powerful. The accompaniment is primarily electronic and made up of layers of sound that grow as the song progresses. As he laments the loss of someone special, Reznor contemplates ending it all for himself: “Staring at the sea, will she come? Is there hope for me after all is said and done?” And later, “The currents have their say, the time is drawing near, washes me away, makes me disappear, and I descend from grace in the arms of undertow; I will take my place in the great below”. [listen]


Writing music of deep personal meaning isn’t the exclusive domain of classical composers and this article covers music from 1521 to 1997 in an attempt to show just a few examples of music inspired by special events, both public and private. To me it’s one of the miraculous things about music – organise sound in a particular way and find yourself in tears. Who can explain it?


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2003.

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