Friday, March 18, 2005

An Afternoon of Music Education

Today was Music Theory Day! Yee-hi!

We worked on borrowed chords and Neapolitan sixths (which are really just another type of borrowed chord). I’d done a bunch of borrowed-chord exercises, and—wonder of wonders—I apparently understand borrowed chords pretty well. So we moved on to Neapolitan sixths.

That’s about it. It doesn’t sound that exciting. But it is exciting. We had some sample excerpts of music, mostly classical, in which the Neapolitan sixth was used.

Is it just me? It is intense enough to hear the music moving from one chord to another, but when some non-diatonic chord comes in … woo, boy! Slow down! It makes me want to do cartwheels. I can’t even express it. It’s just that, the more I learn about theory, the more exciting music is to me. It baffles me that I’m ever anything but joyful when there is music in the world.

On the way home, I was listening to WCQS, which plays classical music in the afternoons. Now, one of my favorite classical-music-station games is “Guess the Composer.” Another is “Guess the Musical Genre.” And then, of course, there are “Guess the Century,” “Guess the Instruments,” and “Guess the Key.”

So today it was a very classical-sounding piece. I could tell immediately that it was a string quartet in the classical style. It sounded a little like Haydn—whimsical and fun—but at the same time, it seemed to have a Mozartean complexity. (Geez, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I. Wait … I do know what I’m talking about. Sort of.)

But it didn’t sound like Mozart to me. I didn’t know why it didn’t sound like Mozart. It sounded maybe a little later than Mozart, but it wasn't quite Beethoven, or even Schubert.

So I gave up “Guess the Composer” and moved on to the “Guess the Key.”

Now, I do not have perfect pitch, meaning that I can’t just hear a note and immediately say, “oh, that’s my old buddy G-flat.” But sometimes I’m a lucky guesser.

I could tell that the piece had an E in it. And I could definitely hear an A. And it was undoubtedly in a major key. At first, I thought it might be G major, but I didn’t hear a C. So I finally decided on A major, since the A and E were so clear.

And guess what! It was in A major!! Is that not just so cool?!

As it turns out, it was a string quartet (No. 2 in A major) by a composer that I’ve never heard of: Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga (1806-1826).

Of course, I couldn’t resist researching him when I got back to the office. Here’s a bit of what I found:

Juan Crisostomo Arriaga was born in Bilbao, Spain, on January 27, 1806. At age 11, he started composing major chamber, orchestral and choral works, and at age 13 he wrote a two act opera, Los Esclavos Felices, which was successfully performed in Bilbao. At 16, he went to the Paris Conservatoire; there, his (now lost) choral work, Et Vitam Venturi was proclaimed by Cherubini to be a masterpiece. It took Arriaga a whopping three months to learn all the principles of harmony and counterpoint. At age 18, he was appointed a professorship at the Conservatoire. He was the youngest ever to be appointed such a postion there.

He died at the tender age of 19, after a brief bout with what is thought to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in a communal grave at the Montmartre cemetary. His work was pretty much forgotten for athe next century, but is both published and recorded today. His most notable surviving works are three string quartets (including the one I heard on the way back from Music Theory) and his Symphony in D Major.


According to my research, Arragia, even though he lived at the same time as Beethoven and Schubert, his musical style is more akin to the composers of the earlier classical period. Which explains why I thought he sounded a little bit like Haydn and a little bit like Mozart.

You can listen to samples of his work here (string quartets) and here (Symphony in D major, plus other selections).

Easy trivia question: What other composer was born on January 27 and wrote many brilliant works before dying at tragically young age, and was also buried in a communal grave?

Hint: Arragia was known as "The Spanish Mozart."


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