Joy Through Time
One of the traits that people across centuries and countries have in common is their need for self-expression. Dating as far back as 2500 B.C., music seems to be one of the most ideal outlets for mankind to vent out their emotions. How does music convey the same emotion throughout different centuries and countries? Are there any common characteristics? What is the inspiration behind the different musical works and how do composers translate it into music?
In order to narrow things down, we will explore how the feeling of ‘joyfulness’ has been portrayed in the history of classical music. Join me on this musical journey through time to find out more!
What do you do when you feel joyful? You probably giggle, smile, laugh, or even jump around and dance. Anything but being still. People back in the Ancient Greek period were just the same. Through written descriptions and images from that era, we can testify the presence of music (mousike in Greek) in religious ceremonies, as well as sports festivals or popular entertainment, where people danced to praise the gods or even simply to socialize. In this recording, especially in the chain and mimic dances, we can hear a few examples of how we believe the ancient Greeks celebrated with music. The steady, yet lively, rhythm played by percussion instruments naturally urges people to dance, no matter the century.
As Christianity took over Europe in the Middle Ages, biblical stories became the dominating theme of most musical compositions. The joy in welcoming the birth of Christ, awe in witnessing His miracles, and the crucifixion were major themes. As in this era, expressiveness begins in the text, take Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes example, where we can hear the joy in witnessing the birth of Christ through the prolonged “Vi” from “Viderunt”.
Secular songs were also performed during this time, but these were, inevitably, less well-preserved than the sacred repertoire, as they came from an oral tradition. The so-called ‘troubadours’ (travelling musicians) would regularly share and perform their music from one village to another. In Jamais nuill tems by Gaucelm Faidit, we can easily imagine the troubadours asking their audience to dance to the music.
Tempo and rhythm are decisive elements in determining the mood of a piece. In the beginning of the 16th century, composers in France developed a new type of chanson that was light, fast, and strongly rhythmical. Lighthearted and optimistic love poems were often the popular choice for this genre. In order to convey the playfulness of this subject, composers focused on tuneful melodies and pleasing rhythms rather than a profound expression of the text. The lightheartedness of the themes can actually be anticipated from the titles of the songs, such as La, La maistre Pierre (La, La mister Pierre) or Je ne menge point de porc (I do not eat pork at all).
Joyfulness in music is effectively expressed with a fast tempo and lively rhythms. In the Baroque period, this is emphasized even more by exuberant ornaments and thicker musical textures. Singers or instrumentalists embellish the original notes by playing some extra notes around it, and musical composition often has a combination of simultaneously sounding musical lines, creating what we call polyphony. Through these elements, joyfulness is expressed vividly and vigorously, as heard in Corelli’s Allegro from Concerto Grosso №4 in D Major and Handel’s United Nation shall combine.
During the Classical era, the music-playing trend spread to the middle-class becoming a common domestic activity. Therefore, composers and publishers composed and published music that amateur musicians could understand and play. These compositions were typically songful, as the melody is clearly perceived with crystalline accompaniment. Sounding joyful was never so simple, and Mozart’s piano sonatas C Major KV 545 are great proof of that.
In the Romantic era, art and music focused on the individual’s self-expression. Many composers thus turned to folk music as their source of inspiration, to showcase their identity and uniqueness. Fréderic Chopin, a Paris-based composer known for his love of his country, took inspirations from Polish traditional music and dance like the ‘polonaise’ or ‘mazurka’. His composition Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, №1 (nicknamed the Military Polonaise) overflows with this dance’s particular characteristics: ¾ metre, moderate tempo, and repeated rhythmic figures, displaying the enthusiasm and spirit of the piece.
Entering the 20th century, composers from different parts of the globe started developing their own musical style and ideas. ‘Atmospheric’ and ‘scenic’ are descriptions that are often applied to Claude Debussy’s composition, one of the most prominent composers of that century. His early orchestral work Fêtes vividly displays a festive atmosphere. Its vibrating, dancing rhythms, and flashes of sound evoke a lively and dazzling landscape. George Gershwin, on the other hand, incorporated jazz in his compositions. In An American in Paris, he depicts the time he spent in Paris and evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s. As quoted from his biography, An American in Paris “… is a humorous piece .. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.” The taxi horns cleverly orchestrated in this piece will certainly bring you to the centre of a vibrant capital city.
Entering the 21st century, a group of American composers invented a new genre in which music is stripped down to its bare essentials: pitch and rhythm. The Minimalist approach turned out to be popular among the listeners and influential to the next generation of composers. Examples from this period are Steve Reich’s Clapping Music and Terry Riley’s In C where cheerfulness sparks through the clapping of jaunty rhythmical patterns and bright instrumentations.
The growth of the film industry also opened up a new way for composers: film-scoring. Film composers were presented with the challenge of composing music that enhances the atmospheres of the different scenes. In the recent Little Women’s soundtrack, Alexandre Desplat uses the sautille (rapid and light repetitive notes) and pizzicato (plucking the strings) techniques, as well as the instrument celesta to express excitement and enthusiasm, while with the opening staccati by the oboe of Aunt Marge’s Waltz from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, John Williams emphasizes the playfulness of this scene.
From the musical examples given above, we can hear how people across time and space express joyfulness through their choice of words, use of specific instruments, tempi and rhythmical patterns. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other compositions with different ranges of emotions from various composers and eras waiting to be discovered. While using Primephonic’s new Radio feature, you can listen to countless recordings based on specific moods: bittersweet, calm, dreamy, ecstatic, energetic, intense, joyful, melancholic, pleasant and tragic. Embark on this unique listening adventure and let us know what your favorite discoveries are!