This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is feeling a bit restless, so on this show, we’re going exploring. We’re calling this show “Explorations,” looking at musical journeys and expeditions of all kinds. Here’s our playlist, if you’re willing to take the journey with us!
- Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica – Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Seventh Symphony began as a score for a film called Scott of the Antarctic. The film was about British Explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his second, ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. The British Captain failed to reach the South Pole on his first expedition. He tried again, and reached the pole on his second expedition. But when he arrived, he found a note from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, informing them that they were five weeks too late to claim any bragging rights. On their 800-mile trek home, Captain Scott and his team all perished in the intense Antarctic climate. Vaughan Williams took the themes from his film score and reworked them as his Sinfonia Antartica. The work features spoken word sections, including quotes from Shelley, the book of Psalms, and Scott’s own journal on that ill-fated expedition.
- Felix Mendelssohn, Calm Sea And Prosperous Voyage – Mendelssohn’s programmatic concert overtures are among his most popular works. He wrote this one in 1828 at age nineteen—not long after his famous Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. The sources of the program were two poems titled “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage” written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It may seem natural to dovetail these subjects together, but anyone who’s been on a sea expedition knows that a completely calm sea does not make for a prosperous voyage. You need at least a little bit of wind. Mendelssohn was no novice at sea, however the person who came up with this original poetic pairing was. It was Ludwig van Beethoven who first paired up “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage” into a musical work. Beethoven’s earlier work set the text of the poems in a short cantata for chorus and orchestra, while Mendelssohn’s later treatment is entirely instrumental.
- Edward Elgar, “Nimrod,” from Enigma Variations – We’re choosing this work as part of our “Explorations” playlist because “Nimrod” was also the name of the ship that carried explorer Ernest Shackleton on an antarctic trek to find the South Pole. On this day 109 years ago—January 9, 1909—Shackleton became the first man to sail farther south than any explorer, planting a British flag just over one hundred miles from the South Pole. The ship Nimrod did not technically reach the South Pole, so he didn’t claim any special bragging rights. But when Roald Amundsen reached the pole three years later, he reportedly observed “Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name will always be written in the annals of Antarctic exploration in letters of fire.”
- Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, “Cavatina” – This particular recording of Beethoven’s Cavatina is currently on a very far flung exploration. In the 1970s, NASA began development on a space probe that would examine the outer planets of our solar system. They understood that there was no hope for recovering this probe after its mission was complete, so it was destined to move ever-farther into the unknown depth of space. The mission—named Voyager—then gained more significance than just a simple probe exploring Jupiter and Saturn. The two Voyager probes became a beacons for all of humanity. They became a “message in a bottle” sent out on the very remote chance that extraterrestrial life may happen upon one in the distant future—interstellar proof that humanity exists… or once existed. On the front of each spacecraft sits a golden phonograph record containing photographs, greetings, and music representing many aspects of our world culture. The record concludes with this recording of Beethoven.
- Antonín Dvořák, Largo from Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World” – Antonín Dvořák had already attained a great deal of fame across Europe when he decided to explore seemingly uncharted territory for a continental classical composer: he traveled to the United States. It was really a no-brainer for Dvořák: he was being offered roughly twenty-five times his salary to teach composition at the National Conservatory than he was currently receiving at the University of Prague! During his stay, Dvořák avidly studied American folk music. He incorporated the style of American folk melodies into his Ninth symphony, titled “From The New World.” Dvořák did not literally quote folk songs. But one of those original American sounding melodies did actually become a folk song. The melody we heard from this beautiful Largo is now more familiar as the song “Goin’ Home.” It was arranged and set to original hymn text by one of Dvořák’s students, William Arms Fisher.
- Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Indes Galantes – It’s the audience who goes out exploring in Rameau’s French Baroque opera Les Indes Galantes or “The Amorous Indes.” It’s one of his most eclectic works, featuring four familiar stories set in what 18th-century France would have considered exotic and far-flung places. Through the opera, the audience travels the world: from an island in the Indian ocean to a Persian flower garden, and from there to the Inca civilization in Peru. The opera concludes in the French colonies of North America, in what would now be Louisiana. Rameau was inspired to compose the work after meeting several Native American chiefs who were sent to the court of Louis XV by French colonists. We’ve since traced these Native American diplomats to a specific tribe that settled in Illinois and along Lake Michigan.
- Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, Columbus, or the Discovery of America – The expedition of Christopher Columbus is famous not only in America, but all throughout Europe. In the early 19th century, poet Louise Brachmann wrote a famous ballad about Columbus. Her poem depicts Columbus as a failed captain of a nearly mutinous expedition, before becoming a hero when land is finally found. The poem was turned into this cantata by composer Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach. This particular Bach, a contemporary of Mozart, was the eldest son of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, and the only one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s grandsons to gain fame as a composer. As a child, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst studied music with two of his famous uncles, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christoph Bach, the “London” Bach. W.F.E. Bach lived a long life, passing away on Christmas Day, 1845, at the ripe old age of 86.
- Tan Dun, Marco Polo – Tan Dun’s 1996 opera Marco Polo is a poetic reimagining of the famed 13th-century trader’s journey from Italy to China. The opera explores the relationship between numerous “doubles”: West and East, presence and memory, and journeys of the body and of the spirit. In this sense, Marco’s “double” is the emperor Kublai Khan, who he encounters at the far end of this world-changing meeting of cultures. This fascination with duality even extends to the opera’s protagonist himself, who is portrayed as two separate characters, Marco and Polo, one singer portraying the person, the other his memory. As Marco and Polo reminisce and even argue about their experiences, the musical style “travels” a path analogous to Polo’s voyage, shifting its musical style from West to East, as he journeys to meet Kublai Khan.
- Stan Rogers, “Northwest Passage” – Born in Ontario, Canada, Stan Rogers was one of the most beloved Canadian folk musicians. He was especially interested in capturing the unique musical and cultural identity of Canada, and Ontario’s deep rooted nautical culture. We just heard one of his best known songs “Northwest Passage”, the title track of his 1981 album of the same name. The song describes the expeditions of 19th-century explorers Sir John Franklin, Alexander Mackenzie, and David Thompson as they attempted to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific ocean. In the song, Rogers poetically compares their dangerous trials by sea to the ease of travelling northwest by car in the 20th century. He wrote the song in one night, but sadly, it would be one of the last songs he recorded. His life was cut tragically short in a plane fire in 1983.
We have more exploratory pieces on our “Explorations” podcast. Check it out!
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!