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Noon Edition

Body of Works: Limb Music

Hands and Feet

We have our finger on the pulse this week, as we explore music of arms, legs, hands, and feet! (Pixabay)

This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust continues our musical anatomy lesson that we're calling "Body of Works." So far we've explored head music and hair music, and now it's time to focus on the "shoulders, knees, and toes" part of that famous anatomical song. It's a show devoted to musical "Limbs."

To arms! Here's our playlist. And don't forget to check out our playlist of torso music!

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Don Giovanni: "Là ci darem la mano" – The second of three collaborations with Viennese court poet Lorenzo da Ponte, the success of Don Giovanni was largely as a follow-up to The Marriage of Figaro. At this point in his career, Mozart's operas were more popular in Prague than in his hometown in Vienna, and so Don Giovanni was commissioned for and received its premiere in the Bohemian city. The recitative and duet we just listened to are sung during the first act of the opera by Don Giovanni and Zerlina, a peasant woman who is betrothed to the farmer Musetto. Don Giovanni uses the duet as an opportunity to seduce Zerlina, taking her by the hands (the title literally means "There, we hold each others' hands") and pulling her into a lustful embrace. Zerlina begins to lose her resolve, mirrored in her music by a sudden shift to wavering chromatic lines. Luckily, she is rescued by Donna Elvira, who bursts in on the scene and breaks up the seduction.

  • John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), Hands Across The Sea March – John Philip Sousa's 1899 march "Hands Across The Sea" was not literally about body parts stretching across the ocean, but more of the metaphorical idea of "lending a hand" to allies across the pond. The work was written in the wake of the Spanish-American War, and although Sousa had written martial and patriotic pieces in the past, this one is more idealistic in its efforts to promote peace between Spain and the United States. The "hands across" metaphor had been well-established when the piece was written, but the popularity of Sousa's march seemed to ignite its usage. "Hands Across The Sea" was later used as the title of various songs, films, and even a play by Noel Coward. It may have even inspired the "Hands Across America" charity event in 1986, which was both metaphorical and literal in its usage, as over 6 million people literally linked hands for the event.

  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Suite Bergamasque: Passepied – Debussy's Suite Bergamasque has become one of the composer's most famous piano suites, although this set of early works was not originally intended for publication. It was Debussy's publisher who convinced him, and in 1905, fifteen years after they were written, the Suite Bergamasque was finally published. It's highly likely that Debussy thoroughly edited the works too. We know that he changed several of the works' titles. Inspired by the poetry of Paul Verlaine, the "Promenade Sentimentale" became the famous "Clair De Lune." And the "Pavane" movement as it was originally called became this "Passepied." So what does all of this have to do with limbs? Well, a passepied is a type of fast triple meter dance especially popular in the Baroque era. In the dance, one foot passes over the other, which is why "passepied" literally translates in French to "passing foot."

  • Philip Glass (b. 1937), Einstein On The Beach: The Knee Plays – Body parts have sometimes doubled as musical terms. Da capo literally means "from the head" in Italian, and refers to going back to the beginning of a piece of music-likewise, jazz musicians often refer to the main melody as "the head." In his opera Einstein On The Beach, composer Philip Glass takes that anatomical analogy further by referring to the "joints" that hold various scenes together as "Knee Plays." In typical Glass fashion, each of these knee plays consist of repeated arpeggios. Einstein On The Beach was made in collaboration with American theater director Robert Wilson, and Wilson continued to use "knee plays" in his subsequent works. For what it's worth, the opera has very little to do with Albert Einstein. Rather, it's a plotless series of references to Einstein, Patty Hearst, the song "Mr. Bojangles," and teen icon David Cassidy-or as Robert Wilson described it: "pictures for your ears."

  • George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Messiah: How Beautiful Are The Feet – Unlike many masterpieces, which have to undergo obscurity before they can be "rediscovered," from its premiere, Handel's "Messiah" has never ceased to provoke fierce audience love, scholarly argument, and many latter-day traditions which have little to do Handel. Its status as a traditional Christmas work, for example, is a fairly recent development. In fact, the libretto covers a wide swath of the New Testament. The air we just listened to, for example, comes from part two, the "Passion Of Christ" portion of the oratorio. The "feet" mentioned in the text are not the feet of the crucified Christ, but rather those of an angel or holy messenger, proclaiming the glory of God. The focus on beautiful feet in the piece refers to the prostration of worshipers, whose natural response when confronted by a heavenly body is to fall down on one's face and see only the feet.

  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Les Cinq Doigts (The Five Fingers) – Igor Stravinsky spent the first few years of his career writing challenging, bombastic music, like Fireworks, The Firebird, and Rite of Spring. Then around 1917, he briefly turned his attention towards more pedagogical works aimed at children and amateurs, like his Three Easy Pieces for piano, Three Tales for Children, and his Valse Pour Les Enfants (Waltz for Children). His piano piece Les Cinq Doigts (The Five Fingers) from 1921 is part of that pedagogical phase. He wrote it while he was staying at the home of his new friend Coco Chanel in the Parisian suburbs. The fashion icon and iconoclast composer found a kinship, and she helped finance some of his productions. The Five Fingers was an easy piano collection aimed at beginners (perhaps Chanel herself), where Stravinsky limited the right-hand part to just five notes played on each of the five fingers.

  • Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637–1707), Membra Jesu Nostri: III. Ad Manus (Upon The Hands) – J.S. Bach is often regarded as the greatest composer of Lutheran sacred music, but German composer Dietrich Buxtehude was highly influential on Bach's style and paved the way for his success. Buxtehude is credited with writing the first Lutheran oratorios, although none of the music of these works has survived. Buxtehude was most prolific in the genre of the church cantata, for which he wrote hundreds of surviving works. We just listened to one of the most famous: a cantata cycle title Membra Jesu Nostri, or "The Limbs of Jesus." The work consists of seven contati, each ruminating on a different part of Christ's crucified body. Keeping with tonight's theme, we heard an excerpt from the cantata Upon the Hands, but the cycle also covers Christ's feet, knees, sides, breast, heart, and face. Buxtehude dedicated the work to Gustaf Düben, an organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach would eventually work.

  • Marin Marais (1656–1728), Suite for Two Viole de Gamba in G Major – During the reign of Louis XIV, performer and composer Marin Marais was considered to be the greatest of all French viol players. By the age of twenty-three, Marais was appointed by the King to one of the most exclusive posts of "Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi." He composed numerous chamber works for solo viol and groups of viols that showcased the expressive nuances of the instrument. Viols in the 17th century usually came in two varieties: the viola da gamba (viol of the leg) and the viola da braccio (viol of the arm). These anatomical descriptions referred to where the instrument was placed, either between the legs (like a modern-day cello) or on the arm (like a modern-day violin). The viola da gamba and viola da braccio remained popular in France into the 18th century, before being largely supplanted by our modern string instruments.

  • Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941), "The Finger Breaker" – Pianist Jelly Roll Morton was one of the first pioneers of jazz, and one of the most important figures in the genre. And he probably would be the first to tell you that, too! Morton's skill at fleet-fingered piano feats was almost as good as his skill at self-promotion. But luckily for Jelly Roll, he could usually put his money where his mouth was, and his fiendishly-difficult song aptly titled "The Finger Breaker" is proof of just that. "Finger Breaker" is not to be confused with a similar tune called "Finger Buster" by fellow jazz pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith. Smith was another early jazz piano icon, specializing in stride piano, as opposed to Morton's more eclectic virtuosic sound. Willie "The Lion" and Jelly Roll even had a bit of a rivalry. Smith used to call Jelly Roll "Mr. One-Hand," a nod to the fact that "The Lion" and other stride players were capable of virtuosic feats using both of their limbs.

Music Heard On This Episode

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