Happy Mardi Gras! As you’re stuffing your face with King Cake, Ether Game is celebrating the three famous New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. No one really knows why those are the official Mardi Gras colors, but nevertheless, we’re exploring the classical works about those three colors.
So “laissez les bons temps rouler,” and enjoy our colorful playlist:
- Henry Purcell (1659–1695), “When Night Her Purple Veil” – Purple is the color of royalty, and Henry Purcell reigns supreme when speaking of 17th century British composers. He was a cosmopolitan man, and while he did occasionally take inspiration from the music of other European countries, notably Italy and Germany, his true legacy resides in the creation of a uniquely British sound. For a man who reached only 36 years of age, Henry Purcell fit an amazing amount of work into his life. If he had lived longer, he easily would have made Britain a more significant musical influence during the Baroque era. Purcell grew up only a short distance from Westminster Abbey, the church where the young Henry would eventually take employment. He was a student of John Blow, the appointed organist at Westminster Abbey, but while Purcell was still a teenager, Blow resigned his position at the abbey in favor of his young student.
- Franz Schubert (1797-1828), “Viola,” D 786 – Schubert’s song Viola is not about that larger cousin of the violin (and the butt of so many music jokes), but rather about a Violet, that purple-colored spring flower. (And, in case you were wondering, no, the etymology of “violet” and “violin” is not the same. I looked it up.) Viola is a sweet and sentimental song and tells the story of a violet who emerges from her wintertime slumber in anticipation of spring. However, the violet emerges too soon, and she doesn’t survive the final winter frost. The poem is a little maudlin as it anthropomorphizes the purple flower and its love of spring. It was written by one of Schubert’s closest friends Franz Von Schober, who also wrote the words to one of Schubert’s most famous songs “An Die Musik.” Most Schubert scholars don’t like Schober, believing that his laziness and sentimentality was a poor influence on Schubert.
- Michael Torke (b. 1961), Purple – You can’t talk about colors without featuring the music of Michael Torke, who was well known for writing compositions based on his experiences with synesthesia. This manifested itself for Torke in the association of music with certain colors. We just listened to Purple, the fourth movement from his Color Music suite, which also features movements based on the colors orange, blue, green and ash. Torke wrote the suite while studying at Yale, but he left school at 23 to start his professional career in New York early. He got his big break with Color Music when New York Ballet director Peter Martins asked Torke to refashion the work for a ballet routine. He is more or less known as the founder of the “Post-Minimalism” movement, a contemporary stream of composition in which composers use the repetitive structures of the preceding generation but infuse them with new material from the classical and pop worlds.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), La Traviata: “Sempre Libera” – This selection is actually a two-fer in our “Purple, Green, and Gold” exploration. Giuseppe Verdi (aka “Mean Joe Green”) obviously counts because “Verdi” roughly translates to “green.” There’s another colorful connection in this Verdi opera, too! La Traviata is about a courtesan named Violetta (Italian for Violet), and she is a strong-willed female protagonist from the underclass, not your typical opera heroine. Even before its premiere, the opera created controversy by portraying the social and physical hazards of being both a courtesan and, in general, a free-minded woman (she extols the virtues of freedom in this famous aria). Verdi’s original working title for the opera was Love and Death. However, at the insistence of the Venetian censors, it was changed to La Traviata or “The Fallen Woman,” to emphasize Violetta’s atonement for her supposed “sins.”
- Gustav Holst (1874–1934), Brook Green Suite – Gustav Holst taught at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School for many years, and composed the St. Paul’s Suite and the Brook Green Suite for the student orchestras there. Both suites draw on English folk song idioms, complementing their comparative technical simplicity with great melodic appeal. The Brook Green Suite was composed in 1933 as a last gift for the students at the school. He named it after Brook Green, a neighborhood in London near Charing Cross where Holst and his wife were married. Holst composed it as he lay in the hospital during his final illness. Despite his health problems, Holst remained quite prolific in the last years of his life, producing the Six Choruses for male choir and strings, the Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra, an orchestral Scherzo, and a film score that has unfortunately been lost.
- John Danyel (1564–c. 1626), “The Leaves Be Greene” – Composer John Danyel was an English lute player and songwriter. He was born in 1564 in Somerset, and he was the younger brother of the poet Samuel Daniel. Not much is known today about John Danyel’s life, but a number of his works survive, including this one, a setting of a popular late 16th century tune called “The Leaves Be Greene.” A number of more famous composers, including William Byrd, also published settings of this tune. Variation sets, often composed on well-known tunes such as this one, were a very popular genre in England during the Renaissance. Composers wrote variation sets for lots of different instruments, and groups of instruments, known as consorts, but solo lute was one of the most popular choices. When this piece was first written, everyone would’ve known this tune and the associated lyrics, resulting in a distinctly programmatic bent, despite the lack of sung lyrics.
- Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), The Golden Spinning Wheel – Folk tales seem to be bizarre in every culture, including Dvořák’s own Czech culture. His tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel is based on a poem from a 19th-century collection of Czech folk poetry known as Kytice. The poem tells the story of a young maiden named Dornička, who is murdered by her evil step-sister when she severs her feet and hands, and removes her eyes. The step-sister poses as Dornička and marries a king in her place. However, a magician intervenes and puts Dornička back together. He tricks the step-sister into giving back Dornička’s feet, hands, and eyes by trading them piece by piece for parts of a golden spinning wheel. When the spinning wheel is complete in the castle, it begins to sing, and tells the king the truth about Dornička. The king finds the now reassembled maiden and they live happily ever after.
- Charles Gounod (1818–1893), Faust: Song of the Golden Calf (“Le veau d’or”) – The aria “Le veau d’or,” also known as the “Song of the Golden Calf,” comes from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, by far the most successful operatic version of the Faustian tale. Like many before him, Gounod drew heavily upon the 1808 tragic play Faust, Part One by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, all about a disillusioned doctor who strikes a deal with the devil Mephistopheles. In this aria, Mephistopheles introduces himself to group of partying students and soldiers with a song. Right away, he makes a reference to the well-known golden false idol of the book of Exodus, saying “You shall bow to the Golden Calf! Kings and rulers kneel before him … none resist the lure of gold!” Instead of being frightened by the devil’s command, the revelers join him in song, singing “Satan leads the merry ball!”
- Neil Young (b. 1945), “Heart Of Gold” – The 1972 song “Heart of Gold” is, to this day, the only number one song for Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. It came from his legendary album Harvest, which also topped the charts for Young in 1972. After he departed the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Young asked a group of country musicians, plus friends like James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, to join him on his next album project. (Taylor and Ronstadt sing backup on “Heart Of Gold”). Many of the songs on Harvest, including “Heart of Gold,” were written while Young was recovering from a back injury and could only play acoustic guitar sitting down. The album also revealed that Young didn’t necessarily have a “Heart of Gold.” On the song “Alabama,” he fired off some nasty insults at southern people. The southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd fired back, calling him out personally in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”