Music Hath Charm
Wherewith we begin a page the purpose of which is to provide recommendations and suggestions of recorded music which you may find appropriate for use in Hellenic Polytheistic Religious context. For practical purposes we will append new recommendations to the top of the list, so that as you return you will get the most recent reviews first. To order a disc from Amazon, or read other reviews, simply click on the underlined order line.
6: Every once in a while somebody becomes known by a single name. It was a popular conceit in the 30s and 40s (think of Aquanetta) and Madonna seems to have brought it back wholesale; but it the world of music, a single name is often what is generally known, from the divine Josquin to Beethoven. I think everybody knew Vangelis a bit before Madonna, and I am happy to be able to include him on this page.
The item under consideration is his album Mythodea, which is a time-spanning, sky-walking sort of music that lifts you up and makes you feel both good and noble, and probabaly proud to be a human.
Vangelis states that he grew up with the myths of Hellas, and that the need to remember deeply (to reconnect, if I may insert a word) is highly important. The cover for the CD features a photo of the Temple of Zeus in Athens. But in the background is the planet Mars; and therein lies the wonder of this music: for it is no less than a 'soundtrack' for the 2001 Mars Odyssey space mission.
In lesser hands this could have been kitch, but Vangelis is a serious composer of music that manages to appeal to the many. He ties together the Ancient Myths, quotes from Kepler, a testimony from NASA, and the voices of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman (whose wonderful singing you may remember from the Atlanta Olympics, spoiled as it was the by idiot sports casters giving her 'stats' over the music!); along with sounds from the mission, the chorus of the National Opera of Greece, and the London Metropolitan Orchestra. His compositional style is all-inclusive for this effort, and it is wonderful.
Parts of this work will no doubt replace the Holst "Planets" in your standard ritual repertoire. Certainly if you are doing an Ares ritual, there is much here to offer. But there is also music of Dionysian passion and splendor, and much that is Apollonic, and... Well, you get the idea.
There is particular beauty in the section where he uses Ancient Greek melodic techniques; but the whole does not evoke either the Ancient World or the World of the Future. Rather, it ties together the Ancient Past with the explorations of the present to reach into a future that is grounded in the most sublime aspirations of the human spirit.
The only fault I find is that there is no libretto with the album. As Beverly Sills once pointed out, the reason popular songs and bel canto opera are both so replete with repetition is that it is hard to understand the words when people sing. Not knowing the words that are being sung is not debilitating in this case, because the music just flows; but I really would like to know what they are saying/singing.
You can order it by clicking here:
There is also a DVD of the piece being performed in concert at the Temple of Zeus, with visual augmentations. I haven't seen it, but it got mainly rave reviews, and I want to see it. You can order the DVD by clicking here:
5:This particular review is Not a recommendation, but is included because you might otherwise end up purchasing it with a mistaken idea that it was appropriate; which it is not. Nonetheless, it is very beautiful music, and your musical tastes may be profitably expanded by an acquaintancae with it.
To be specific, John Tavener has emerged as the foremost composer of Christian liturgical music in the West, in much the same way that Arvo Part has emerged in Eastern Europe. The initial attraction of this particular CD is a piece contained on it called "Song for Athene," which naturally enough captured the attention of this Hellenic Polytheist. --Unfortunately, the "Song" has nothing to do with the Goddess. The Athene of the title was a young friend of the composer, half Greek, a talented actress who was tragically killed in a cycling accident. He had heard her read Shakespear in Westminster Abbey, and after her funeral he composed this beautiful tribute, combining words from the Greek Orthodox liturgy with words from Hamlet.
That much said, we can address the music itself. Tavener composes out of the same musical landscape as Part, Pendereski, Ligeti, and others of what we can look back on as 60s Classical, characterized by long chords, notes, and phrases of great complexity and beauty. Personally, I find the popularity of Part at this time something of a puzzle. His music is beautiful but essentially dull. That his works are programed on radio stations which hold Classical music to be 'restful' (and which often play works of intense exciement during their 'dream hour,' thereby telling us more about the programmer's lack of an ear for the music than anything else) is damning with faint praise indeed.
Tavener offers us the same sort of etherial visions of light and repose, but like Pendereski, contrasts them with their alternatives. His Christianity is not somnolent, but one which confronts suffering and seeks spiritual solace in faith. More, his music grows passionately out of the words. The dynamically delicate setting of Blake's The Lamb, which opens the collection. is followed immediataely on the disc by Innocence, a work which opens with violence and despair, and which contrasts enormous musical forces and styles in a rocky and desperatae climb toward some kind of resolution: the work is about the senseless, stupid, suffering of the innocent down through the ages, and combines texts and techniques from Anglican, Odthodox, and Islamic traditions. It is enormously theatrical, and it really is impossible to get an idea of what it must be like to experience it in Westminster Abbey, for which it was written, on CD. The forces are scattered throughout the Abbey, and mere stereo cannot convey back and front, up and down, as the work is meant to be. Appropriately, this highly theatrical liturgical work is dedicated to the composer's friend, the actress Mia Farrow. The solo soprano of the work must sing a range of three octives, and the soloist does it with a fluid grace that leaves one gasping. If for no other reason, you may want this disc jut to hear how far the human voice can reach.
A setting of Blake's The Tyger follows, then Two Hymns for the Mother of God, and the Little Requium for Father Malachy Lynch. The disc concludes with the Song for Athene, which is what attracted us in the first place; and which you may, indeed, have heard. It was used as the final music, the recessional, at Princess Diana's funeral.
There is much variety in the music, and all of it beautiful. But it is suffused by that sense of calm which music of the Anglican tradition often conveys. This is interesting because Tavener embraced what the notes call 'the Orthodox Faith' in the 1977; without bothering to tell us which Orthodox faith he embraced. --Which, frankly, is as annoying as referring to The Catholic church or The Pagan faith. But no mind: from his inclusion of texts in Modern Greek, we may guess that it is the Greek Orthodox faith and not the Russian.
While I cannot recommend this disc as useful in a ritual context for Hellenic Polytheists, I can recommend it for its sheer musical beauty. It is evidence that liturgical music is not only an historical artifact but a living arena of art. And it may give those of a non-Christian persuasion some inspiration toward compositions of similar beauty and granduer on non-Christian texts.
Hint: The music on the disc is extremely soft when it begins. Don't turn up the volume or the organ, at the beginning of Innocence, will blow your speakers and your eardrums.
4: If Richard Strauss had been English instead of German, he might very well have been Sir Granville Bantock. They were, indeed, freinds; but of the Bantock I have heard, the sharp angles have been smoothed over with nobility.
This becomes relevent in their relative treatments of Classical subject matter. Strauss took on the Classical Tragedy and produced "Elektra," one of the most violent works of music ever composed. Bantock composed his "Pagan Symphony" as an evocation of everything beautiful about Classical Hellas. He eschews horror in favor of the noble and pastoral.
In looking at the title "Pagan Symphony" it is worth remembering that to the British of the late Nineteenth Century the word 'pagan' evoked nothing of witchcraft or magic or sorcery, but rather the idea of a pre-Christian world; perhaps immoral by later standards, but certainly a world of pleasure and esthetic perfection.
Bantock's symphony is specific to the vision of a Pagan world in accord with the tastes of readers of this web page. Though divided into sections, the work is played without pauses. A pastoral introduction of quiet and calm introduces all the musical materials of the symphony; this is followed by an allegro more in accord with the usual opening of a traditional symphony. Bantock says of piece: "The music may be described as a vision of the past, when the Greek God Dionysos was worshipped as the bestower of happiness and plenty, the lover of truth and beauty, the victor over the powers of evil." --A bit Anglican in statement, perhaps, but apt nonetheless.
The third movement, labeled a 'dance for Satyrs,' offers Bantock diverging widely from the near Straussian music of the beginning. He begins conservatively enough, but by the intense section at the end, for lots of drums unaccompanied, he is very far from the Munich Strauss indeed! The fourth section, opened with wonderful fanfares, evolves into an early Twentieth Century version of an 'antique dance,' and then, in the fifth section, there is a sensuous invocation of Aphrodite, based on lines from a poem by Sappho. The conclusion sums up the whole, bringing all the parts of the music together in a properly Polytheistic Polyphony, if I may coin a phrase.
This is big music, for a big orchestra, and it is part and parcel of the music that grew out of Liszt and his invention of the tone poem, so colorfully developed by Richard Strauss. But it is very much English music as well. Bantock succeeded Sir Edward Elgar at Birmingham University, and remained a well-respected teacher and composer throughout his life. It is perhaps only the title of this wonderful symphony/tone poem that has kept it from taking a more prominant place in the repertoire.
On the CD I have one will also find three other pieces by Bantock: "Fifine at the Fair," a musical treatment of a poem by Robert Browning which is accorded the honor of being far more intelligible than Browning's tortuous use of language (odd for Browning); and "Two Heroic Ballads," based on pieces from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's collection of "Songs of the Hebrides."
This is all lovely music, and worth the effort of sampling this composer.
3: The Musical Heritage Society (you have to join it and buy either through the mail or online) offers some interesting stuff. One such item is a disc by (prepare youself!) the (President's Own) United States Marine Band, which just happens to be a top flight musical organization, capable of a great deal more than one usually gets to hear it play. (Note: since writing this the Musical Heritage Society has become such a thorn in my side that I cannot recommend your joining it. I will be posting the horrors on the main page sometime in the future. Meanwhile, buy one of the versions below.)
In this case, a disc called "American Games" provides two items of interest: the first is Florent Schmitt's "Dionysiaques,"which the liner notes describe as "the symphonic band's virtuostic showcase and a sonic spectacular par excellence." Also: "Schmitt sought to convey a sensuous, exotic atmosphere which gradually builds into a hectic, frenzied drunken revel."
Well, that sure sounds like our God!
It is a fairly short piece, musically between Massenet (Schmitt's teacher) and Ravel, but with the backup power of Wagner. This is not your High School Band scoring, by the way. It is the Hundred Piece Symphonic type band.
If you don't happen to belong to Musical Heritage, then Dionysiaques is available on two separate CDs, and if you order them by clicking here I might get a couple of pennies out of it, which I desperately need.
The first is recorded by the Stockholm Symphony Wind Orchestra, and includes music by Stravinsky and Dvorak, for those of you with conservative tastes.
The Second is recorded by, er, Whoops! --Forgot to note the musicians and the conductor and all that: but it includes music by Vincent Persichetti (the most famous modern composer of recorder music), Gilmore, 2 pieces by the amazing Frank Zappa, and Gilingham; for those of you with more of a sense of adventure.
The American Games disc also includes a selection of 8 of the 36 Greek Dances by Nikos Skalkottas. If you look around at Amazon under his name you will find other selections from this set of dances, though I have found none so extensive. Much of the set is also useful for ceremonial use.
For those of a more general NeoPagan bent, however, it may be noted that Skolkottas composed a piece with the title A Mayday Spell, which is described as "A Faery Drama.' I have not heard it or I would review it and offer a link. --Maybe when I get some money?
2: This second review is of a brief piece by one of my favorite composers, Lou Harrison. Much of his music I find suitable for ritual, and that goes for just about any ritual: wonderful stuff!
But, one should be warned that Harrison composes across as broad a spectrum of styles as Picasso painted. Any technique that appears in the realm of music is a form for him to quickly assimilate and conquer. He is as at home with a gamelon as he is with a symphony orchestra
The CD I want to recommend is one which waited for a couple of years on my Wish List, and which I finally got at Christmas of 1999. It is called, simply, Rapunzel, and the largest part of the CD is taken up by Harrison's wonderful opera of that title and subject; based, as it happens, on a retelling of the tale by no less a luminary than William Morris. The opera is from the early 50s (right after Harrison's campaign to make the world cognizant of the ((up until Harrsion)) unjustly neglected works of Charles Ives) and it is written in the serial compositional manner, which at that point was the cutting edge.
What is of special interest here, however, is the three Songs of the Forest, written between 1951 and 1992. They are marked Fastish, Slowish, and Largo, and each one is prefaced by a brief introduction in poetry, narrated on the recording by Harrison himself. The first, Fastish, is dedicated to Artemis. All three seem to me suitable for rituals of a meditative nature, as does the beautiful Air in g minor which concludes the disc; and, for that matter, the Air for the Poet which comes on the disc at the beginning, before the opera.
The details are: Rapunzel, an opera by Lou Harrison, on New Albion Records, NA093. The website for New Albion is at http://www.newalbion.com. You can possibly get it through any music store. The copyright on the CD is 1997.
Or, you can click on the link below and order it now from Amazon, where you will find more details, such as conductor and artists.
1: This first review is excerpted from The Archieros' Journal, and you can find the complete, philosophical, text there. Here is the exerpt:
...When I came in after the ritual it occurred to me that I wanted some music, and no commercials. Into my brain popped a CD containing music mostly written for the Modern Olympics; which means, Music in Honor of Zeus. It appeared to my hand a couple of years ago when I was going through the used CD section in a media store.
For the record (no pub intended), the CD is titled Summon the Heroes, and features John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra. It is (and I quote) "The Official Licensed Classical Record of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Inc." --Don't let that disturb you, it is worth tracking down. The number on it is SK 62592, if that helps.
There are some familiar cuts on the disc; Orff's "Oh Fortuna," for instance, and the Vangelis "Chariots of Fire" theme. You may also recognize Williams' familiar theme music for the Olympic telecasts. But you are nowhere else likely to find Leonard Bernsteins's Olympic Hymn or the Ode to Zeus by Mikis Theodorakis. And Javelin by Michael Torke is a splendid treat indeed!
Oh! Some months after writing this I suddenly realized that the CD (or tape) might still be in print, so I looked at Amazon, and there it is! If you get the urge to buy it, click here:
The Background of this Page is Genuine Ancient Hellenic Archetectural Ornament. The colors in which it was realized are original: the type selection and type color are mine. But, given the difference in colors between one computer and another, between one web browser and another... Well, the colors may not be as bright and brilliant as they were when used by our Cultural Ancestors.