Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's got a nice beat...I can tend sheep to it

You didn't know it on Monday, but what started out as an innocent little blog is just the beginning of a multi-part obsession. This is the "Year of the Pastorale."

Just what is a Pastorale? As I mentioned on Monday, the word is related to shepherding, to pasture, to the countryside. In music, a Pastorale is supposed to evoke the world of the countryside, specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the bucolic world of the country. In other words, that world is being Romanticized. It is being imagined as a simple joy. All of the sheep and the shepherds on a scenic hillside, getting along blissfully with each other, no dangers in sight. It is a remembrance of the good old days, the way things used to be.

Except that they never were. The Pastorale is for city folk, imagining life in the country where, obviously, people have no cares, and life is easy. Shh! Quiet, country folk! We city folk don't want to hear your rebuttal. You have it easy. Case closed.

One of the things that makes a pastorale pastoral is its rhythm, a gently rocking rhythm, in three. But it's not a simple waltz. Often, there is a snap between beats one and two so you get a sort of dum  dedum figure. You'll hear what I mean. To demonstrate that, here is another piece from Franz Liszt, country romanticizer extraordinaire. He could also play a mean piano, and it is really admirable to hear him restrain himself to such a simple texture. The mood here is quite bucolic:

Liszt: The Shepherds at the Manger

The piece does not call itself a pastorale. It is from Liszt's "Christmas Album"--obviously, it is a setting of "Good Christian Men Rejoice." But Liszt refers to shepherds in the title, and in order to conjure them up musically we need the rhythm of the pastorale.

Before I go, let me take a minute to romanticize about last year, when I made this recording. On a Saturday afternoon in December, I was recording this serene little piece when some fellow across the street from the church started up his riding mower and interrupted my calm. You can read about my genteel reaction here. I spent the next hour working on something else instead. I forget now whether the take I chose to use includes the mower or not. I think I edited it out. You can find out by cranking the volume way up, but I don't recommend it. It would destroy the mood of the placid countryside, in the land that never was, where you and I don't have a care in the world.

Must be nice, being a shepherd. All you have to do is enjoy the smell of sheep. Plus, with unions these days, they probably make nearly 8 bucks an hour.

on to the third article in this series

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