Observations from “Heavenly Music” (1943)

Someone recently told me about this interesting short film and I was inspired to find it and make some observations about it. It’s called “Heavenly Music” and won the Academy Award for Best Short in 1943. Produced by Sam Coslow for MGM, this short brings up an number of fascinating topics. It’s about a musician who wants to get in to heaven, but he has to pass an audition in front of history’s great composers to see if his popular music will stand the test of time. That in itself is an interesting question, because “popular” or even “folk” music is often not thought of as “art” music in America nowadays. But in times past, the line between “popular” and “art” music was a lot more blurred. As one of my favorite music professors always says, “Music is music is music”. This little short actually makes a good point at the end, spoken by Joy, the angel.

Another fascinating observation you can make from watching the short is that there are no women in musicians’ heaven! Brahms, Wagner Beethoven, etc. but no Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Nadia Boulanger! Actually, when we read most music history books or browse the library shelf, the percentage of male versus female composers is vastly disproportionate. I really don’t know why this is. Only look at the impact of Nadia Boulanger on American composition and we see that it has nothing to do with ability of men versus women (see below). But I remember even thinking as a young girl, “Is it even okay for me to write music?” (And for all you aspiring women musicians out there, of course the answer is “Yes!”. If you need more inspiration, check out the “Unstoppable” add by Always below.) Now I was brought up to believe I could pursue any type of art of music I wanted, so my question didn’t come from my upbringing, but from the almost complete lack of women composers mentioned in music history. I really believe this is a very interesting topic and relevant and no doubt one that is changing as we speak. For further reading, I would recommend “Women in Music” edited by Karin Anna Pendle: http://www.amazon.com/Women-Music-Karin-Anna-Pendle/dp/025321422X.

And as someone who loves studying Medieval music culture, I was struck by the part in the short about how the composers started fighting over who stole whose melody. Now I seriously doubt they would have done this since there are often so many similar melodies that com up in compositions. The reason I bring up Medieval music is because in those days, composers took others music on purpose and fashioned it into their own music. It was the idea of taking pre-existing material and working with it, the same way a carpenter takes wood from a forest. There were no copyright restrictions. And from this composers were able to build on each other to have a unified but varied musical culture that was able to grow from the discoveries of others. We composers still do this today, listening to each other’s ideas, making observations, and crafting our own works. We just have to be aware and not to downright copy.

The last observation I will mention is the way the young composer in the film had to come up with a piece of music in 10 minutes. He did so by relying on his muse, the angel “Joy”. She inspired him and he “composed” a song on the spot. This is the mythical idea of “genius”, that music just comes to the composer out of the air, with little or no effort. But the reality is that music is the result of crafting, of gathering material, making observations, thinking, experimenting, learning from others, learning from nature. Natural ability is involved, but it requires cultivation. It doesn’t just happen. Early composers, even people like the great J. S. Bach, thought of themselves as craftsman. Beethoven had to write and re-write his compositions. The idea of “genius” came later. It’s a topic I would someday like to learn more about, but one that is very important to keep in mind, especially for young composers.

I’m sure there are many things we could talk about after watching this short film. These kinds of discussions are good food for thought.

“Heavenly Music (1943)

“Mademoiselle” – Nadia Boulanger

Always #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable

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Composer of the Day: Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474)

Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474) was a French composer, the illegitimate son of a priest. During his twenties he went to Italy and eventually sang in the papal chapel. In his music we can see many Medieval priorities as well as several new innovations. We can see the use of Medieval counterpoint, where one voice goes up and the other goes down, with voices coming together at consonant intervals. Medieval counterpoint is beautifully straight forward and is a good starting point for the young composer of today. In the Medieval mind, consonant intervals were octaves, perfect fourths and fifths, and unisons. Thirds were still considered dissonances and like other dissonances were used in passing. We can see these countrapuntal practices in Dufay’s Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”.

By way of innovations, we can also start to see the use of sharps to create a movable mi fa relationship or a half step between other notes besides the standard mi fa and ti do notes, something we begin to see in late Medieval music. Because of the use of these sharps, Dufay’s music takes unexpected turns and has a colorful quality and rich harmonies that cause many scholars to suggest that his music paves the way for the music of the Renaissance*.

This music is also innovative in another way. As we can learn from the organum from the Florence Manuscript, Medieval composers took preexisting material and worked with it to construct their music. They weren’t creating something from nothing, but were taking material that already existed and crafting it into something else, in the case of the Florence Manuscript organum, they were taking older church cantus and using it as the tenor, the held, slow bottom part underneath the new counterpoint. Well, Dufay was a composer who used not sacred music, but a secular tune, l’Homme Armé, as the tenor for his Mass. This practice became a very popular one in the years following, and Dufay may have been the one with whom this practice originated. Copyright didn’t exist then, so composers were free to use each other’s music for the basis of their own compositions, so as to build on previous innovations and ideas unhindered.

*Note: We should take note here that terms like “Renaissance” and “Medieval” are merely helpful labels for us today. People living during these times did necessarily use them, nor did they see curtains fall on such and such a year marking the end of an era and the beginning of another one. On the contrary, music is an example of how ideas develop, continue, and change over time. Many of the priorities people had during the Middle Ages are still held today.

Here is a link to a sheet music edition of Dufay’s Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”:

http://imslp.org/wiki/Missa_l%27Homme_Arm%C3%A9_%28Dufay,_Guillaume%29

Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”

Cantica Symphonia, Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America

Get to know LVSO!

The La Verne Symphony Orchestra is THE orchestra in the City of La Verne, CA. We are proud to offer regular performances and interactive opportunities to students at the University of La Verne and to members of our local community. If you have yet to become familiar with our orchestra, we welcome you to get to know our orchestra better!

Emmanuel Lagumbay, conductor of the La Verne Symphony Orchestra, brings vitality and creative insight to our rehearsals and performances. He is a graduate of the University of La Verne and an active Southern California composer. Here is the link to the writeup about Emmanuel that was posted on the Rae Collection website: http://www.theraecollection.com/#!Creatives-Spotlight-Emmanuel-Lagumbay/c1vb9/5568d4ac0cf23d0164cc6582

Deanna Rae is a local bronze sculpture artist and also a cellist in the La Verne Symphony Orchestra. On her website, http://www.theraecollection.com, you can see her work as well as videos about the process of creating an original bronze sculpture. She is also a member of the Celloteers, an all cello chamber ensemble that performs with LVSO. It’s the wonderful people in LVSO that make our orchestra so great!

For more information about LVSO, you can visit daniellerosariaviolinist.com/lvso.