This week, Ether Game managed to fall on the seventh day of November, so we presented a show on the luckiest of numbers in music history.
Erik Satie (1866–1925) Gymnopedies nos. 1 & 2 To say that Erik Satie was a bit eccentric would be a huge understatement. While visiting the bohemian Chat Noir cabaret in Paris, he was coerced by the proprietor to declare his profession. However, Satie never held a recognizable occupation, so he said that he was a “Gymnopedist,” an obscure word which many thought he had made up. But it actually refers to an athletics competition performed by children in ancient Greece. In 1888, one year after his visit to the cabaret, Satie completed his most famous composition and titled it Gymnopedies. The short pieces are atmospheric, drifting cloud-like from one idea to the next and almost entirely void of tension. The “seven” connection in this piece has to do with its distinctive opening sonorities. The first piece opens with two alternating major seventh chords, harmonies that feature both the first and seventh degrees of the major scale.
Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770–1827) Septet in E-flat Major, OP. 20: Mvt. I Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, one of the most important works featuring seven instruments, grew out of the earlier serenade and divertimento genres. Serenades and divertimenti lived somewhere between a smaller suite and a larger symphony. These lighter, chamber works had more movements than a symphony (usually around six or eight), but fewer instruments. The instrumentation of the Beethoven’s septet was novel for the time: a string quartet with clarinet, bassoon and horn. This particular work and combination of instruments influenced many other composers, like Rodolphe Kreutzer, Max Bruch, and P.D.Q. Bach, who wrote his own Schleptet in E-flat Major (naturally). Beethoven’s work was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, the last empress of the Holy Roman Empire and the first empress of the Austrian Empire.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Bluebeard's Castle, Op. 11 No.7 The Wives Written when he was thirty years old, Bluebeard’s Castle was Bartok’s first attempt to write vocal music and remains his only opera. The old French folktale about a murderous nobleman is retold in the form of a highly symbolic and enigmatic psychodrama, with minimal sets and characters. Bluebeard and his new wife arrive at the dark castle, a dark hallway with seven doors. His wife Judith requests that all the doors in the castle be opened to let the light in. Bluebeard begs not to, but eventually each door is opened to reveal the curious spectacles inside: a torture chamber, a storehouse, a beautiful garden, and eventually Bluebeard’s former wives, alive but imprisoned. With the vocalists singing in a declamatory style suitable to the unique rhythms of Hungarian, the musical accompaniment has a particularly important role in creating the dramatic emotional and psychological narrative of the opera.
Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) The Magnificent Seven: Main Themes While stories of courage, loyalty, and adventure are pretty universal, similarities between the cowboy from the West and the samurai from the East have inspired several cross-cultural borrowings. Among these are the American Western film “The Magnificent Seven” which was adapted from Akira Kurasawa’s earlier film Seven Samurai, each telling the tale of seven strongmen who band together to protect a village. Elmer Bernstein’s (burn-steen) score bursts with energy—you can just imagine the horses galloping and the cowboys with their lightning fast guns. Although in the film, the action moves… kind of slowly. John Sturges, the director, filmed the movie as a slow burn with steady, wide-angle shots and not a lot of movement. It was Bernstein’s score that provided most of the fast-paced excitement.
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) Sensemayá As conductors of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas were largely responsible for putting Mexican classical music on the map in the early 20th century. Both were also prolific composers. From 1930 to 1938, Silvestre Revueltas wrote a series of nine symphonic poems. Sensemaya is the last and is his most famous, especially after it was given its first US performance in 1945 under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. The original poem that inspired this work describes the hunting, chants and ritual sacrifice of a snake. Revueltas sought to translate the exact rhyme scheme, meter and rhythm of the chants into musical phrases, which naturally put the majority of this piece into an asymmetrical ⅞ meter.
John Dowland (1562-1626) Lachrimae: Various Dances For many years John Dowland petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for a royal position at her court in England as a court lutenist. Instead the position was filled by Simon Merson, a musician whose reputation, though known in England, did not match Dowland's fame across Europe. Dowland was instead enticed to travel to Denmark, where he held the position of Royal Lutenist for the Danish king, Christian IV. King Christian was an avid patron of the arts, and went to great lengths to have Danish court musicians trained in the styles of English and Italian music, which had gained popularity across Europe. Alongside bringing Dowland to Denmark, he also sent many of his court composers to Venice and Florence so that they could learn to write madrigals in the Italian style. Dowland wrote some of his most famous works while employed in Denmark, including Lachrimae (or Seven Tears) which he dedicated to Christian’s sister, Anne of Denmark.
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 'Messe blanche' [White Mass] The Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin was one of the most creative, and yet simultaneously controversial, composers of his day. According to his biographer, “No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death.” This polarity has defined Scriabin’s legacy, and much of his music is, to this day, considered a bit offbeat. This is largely because of the personal mysticism that imbues Scriabin’s compositions. His attitudes towards light, color and sound, and the somewhat Messianic status he gave himself caused him to be pushed to the fringes of the Russian mainstream. His seventh piano sonata, subtitled “White Mass” describes an episode of spiritual and religious ecstasy, with directives in the score such as “with somber majesty,” “very pure, with profound sweetness,” and “with radiant ecstatic delight.”
Frank Martin (1890–1974) Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments: III. Allegro Vivace Swiss composer Frank Martin was the tenth child of a Calvinist minister, and his output is extremely varied, with works for many different combinations of instruments. One of the most unusual combinations is found in the Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, which features a wind quintet plus horn and trumpet accompanied by string orchestra, timpani, and percussion. Martin was a late developing composer. He never studied at a conservatory, and was the ripe old age of 31 when he wrote his first work, the Four Sonnets to Cassandre. The Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments was written in 1949, when Martin was approaching 60 years of age. Some compositions take a longer time to steep.
Jack White (b. 1975) Seven Nation Army The garage rock duo The White Stripes won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song in 2004 for “Seven Nation Army.” The term “Seven Nation Army” is a mondegreen: singer Jack White’s childhood misinterpretation of the words “Salvation Army.” The most notable part of the song is the signature guitar riff, which White purportedly wrote with the intention of becoming a possible James Bond theme. The riff is very catchy, and for some reason, has caught on with the sport of soccer (or European football, for all you NPR listeners). It started with some fans who overheard the song in a bar while watching a match, and it’s grown into the official anthem for soccer clubs and tournaments all around Europe. Its popularity in soccer matches has even leaked over into other sports like baseball, basketball, hockey, and American football.