This week on the show, we conclude our “Body of Works” month-long exploration of musical anatomy. So far, we’ve looked at the head, hair, arms and legs, and now we’re going to take a look at what’s inside. This week, our theme is music of the “Torso”!
Do you have the guts?
- The "torso" of the violin – If you heard a violin concerto like Mendelssohn's famous Violin Concerto when it was first premiered in 1845, it would have sounded quite different, specifically because its first soloist Ferdinand David would have played on a violin with gut strings. Up until the 20th century, most string instruments were strung with “catgut.” The material of these strings was not harvested from the belly of a cat, as the name might suggest, but rather from a sheep or horse. The term is probably a derivation of “kitgut,” “kit” being a colloquial term for the violin. Gut strings aren’t the only thing the violin has in common with the torso. The instrument’s soundbox is often compared to a human torso because of its similar shape, and its components share names with torso anatomy. The inner sides of the violin are called the ribs, the middle of the instrument where the bow sits is called the waist, and the deepest portion of the soundbox is called the belly.
- Henry Purcell (1959–1695), Dido and Aeneas: "When I Am Laid In Earth" – The lyrics of this beautiful lament read “When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create; No trouble, no trouble in thy breast; Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.“ Ironically, it was trouble in his own breast that ended composer Henry Purcell’s life when he was only thirty-six. Not long after he finished his one and only opera, Dido and Aeneas, from which this lament is taken, he apparently returned home late from the theater one night to find himself locked out of his own house. His wife was apparently tired of his night owl habits and refused to let him inside. It’s theorized that from that night Purcell caught a chill that eventually resulted in a fatal bout of either pneumonia or tuberculosis—some disease of the lung. He was dead by 1695 at the height of his career, having composed music for more than forty-two plays in the last six years of his life alone.
- Carl Orff (1895–1982), Carmina Burana: Circa mea pectora – Despite being originally written for the stage, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has become one of the most celebrated pieces of twentieth-century concert music. The lyrics are a collection of profane poetry written by 11th- and 12th-century itinerant monks. The manuscript ended up at a benedictine monastery in Bavaria, which gave rise to its name: Carmina Burana means “Songs of ‘Beuren,’” the old form of the word Bayern, the German word for Bavaria. Though “O Fortuna” is the most famous movement from the work, there are many other highlights, including this torso-themed selection: Circa mea pectora or In My Breast. As with all the lyrics of the Carmina Burana, the words to this poem are sung in a mixture of high medieval German and Latin. Circa mea pectora contains the variety of musical textures that make Orff’s settings so much fun to listen to. We hear not only a baritone soloist, but also several choirs, a full orchestra, bells and a children’s choir.
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Coronation Anthem No. 4, "My Heart Is Inditing" – When hearts show up in music and poetry, they so rarely refer to the actual organ. Like, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” is not about the enduring power of one’s circulatory system, but rather about the metaphorical heart, the source of one’s passion and love, their innermost soul and being. Such is the case for Handel’s Fourth Coronation anthem “My Heart Is Inditing.” The opening line, “My heart is inditing [i.e., ‘telling the tale’] of a good matter,” is obviously metaphorical. And the “good matter” that the heart is writing of is the coronation of the next English monarch. The text was originally adapted by composer Henry Purcell in 1685 for the coronation of King James II, taken from Psalm 45 and the Book of Isaiah. In 1727, Handel reused the text for the coronation of Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II, although he cut many of Purcell’s verses.
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Ariettes oublieés: "Aquarelles I: Spleen" – The song “Spleen” from Debussy’s song cycle Ariettes oublieés [“Forgotten Songs”] is not really about the blood-filtering internal organ. In fact, the French use the word “rate” to refer to the organ and the word “spleen” to refer to something slightly different, but related. It all goes back to the Ancient Greeks, who believed that one’s disposition could be attributed to the four “humors” in your body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Black bile, associated with the spleen, was said to be the cause of melancholy. So over the centuries, the world spleen had become synonymous with melancholy. Therefore, this melancholic poem by Paul Verlaine bears the title “Spleen.” Most of Verlaine’s poetry was melancholic. Composer Gabriel Fauré set a different melancholy Verlaine poem called “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” or “It weeps in my heart" (as did Debussy), however, auré mistakenly referred to the title of the song as “Spleen.” To be fair, both songs are dripping with black bile.
- The "bladder" of the bagpipe – Orkney, the beautiful and green group of islands just north of the Scottish mainland, was the hometown of the late composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of Britain’s most popular contemporary composers. This work, the 12-minute orchestral piece An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise, was commissioned by John Williams and the Boston Pops. Depicting the music at a Scottish wedding festivity, it remains one of Davies’s most popular pieces, likely because, at the very end, it includes a solo for Great Highland Bagpipes, one of the only classical works to feature this instrument. The unmistakable sound of the bagpipes are made possible because of the expandable membrane that sits in the bag of the instrument, giving it its namesake. This membrane is called, in keeping with the torso theme, the bladder. Although modern bagpipes use a synthetic bladder, the first bagpipes of the Medieval Era would have used a real pig’s bladder!
- Marin Marais (1656–1728), Le Tableau de l'Operation de la Taille [Description of the Operation of a Bladder Stone] – Marin Marais’s 1725 showcase for the viola da gamba titled Le Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille is one of the most unusual pieces written in the 18th century. Marais was a court musician in Versailles, and over the course of his career, composed five books of pieces for solo viola da gamba, including this particular oddity. Le Tableau is a musical depiction of a real operation Marais had undergone at age 64 to remove a bladder stone (not a gall stone, as it’s often erroneously stated—gall stone removals weren’t pervasive until the 19th century). Each section of the music contains annotations in the score about the operation, including climbing onto the operating table, being tied down, the incision, the forceps, the pain of the bladder stone removal, and the blood. As a result, it’s one of the first extant examples of what we would call “program music.”
- George Enescu (1881–1955), Torso – The names of body parts often have other meanings besides their anatomical definition. You can give someone a “hand,” “foot” the bill, “head” someone off at the pass, be full of “heart,” or have trouble “stomaching” the news. Likewise, a “torso” can refer to the trunk of the human body, everything from your shoulders to your hips, excluding your arms. But “torso” also has meaning in the art world—a “torso” can refer to some kind of unfinished artwork, something substantially whole, but still missing critical parts. It was this definition that was used for the title of this single-movement violin sonata by 20th-century Romanian composer George Enescu. This “torso” was believed to once be part of a full Violin Sonata in A minor. However, the remaining movements were either lost or never written down, leaving only this, let’s just say, dismembered and beheaded single movement… or, you know, a torso.
- "Weird Al" Yankovic, “Pancreas” – When researching this show, the Ether Game Brain Trust didn’t think we’d find any pieces about some of the weirder internal organs of the torso, like the gall bladder, the esophagus, or the kidney. But leave it up to “Weird Al” Yankovic to write a love song to the major player in both the digestive and endocrine systems, the pancreas. If you didn’t know what the pancreas’s function was, “Weird Al” delightfully sums it up for you here. This song was featured on his 2006 album Straight Outta Lynwood, which at the time, was “Weird Al”’s highest-selling record. Most “Weird Al” songs are direct parodies of existing pop tunes, but occasionally, Yankovic liked to parody general musical styles, allowing him to exercise more creativity. “Pancreas” is one of those stylistic parodies, imitating the complex harmonies and counterpoint of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.