Our music for today comes from Carl Orff’s opera Carmina Burana. Carmina Burana is the most frequently performed choral work of the 21st century. The opening chorus is one of the most popular lines in all of classical music. It became famous through an Old Spice commercial in the United Kingdom.
The name means “The Songs of Beuren,” and it comes from the combination of two words. The first is the Latin “carmina,” meaning “songs.” The second is “beuren,” which represents the Beuren region of Bavaria, where Carl Orff lived and is now buried. The Songs of Beuren were a collection of 13th-century poems discovered in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren. Orff’s opera was his effort to set these poems to music. If you are interested in seeing what the words are, they are conveniently displayed as a subscript in the video above.
The twenty-second installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Frederic Chopin, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.
Any list of greatest hits would be incomplete without one of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. They are one of the centerpieces of the piano repertoire. The Nocturne you will hear today is the second of the Opus 9 Nocturnes that were written in 1830 (when Chopin was only twenty years old). It is widely regarded as Chopin’s most famous composition.
The opening melody, which is one of the most famous lines in the piano repertoire, is repeated three times during the Nocturne. Listen for the elaborate decorations that Chopin adds to it each time it returns. You may also notice a somewhat hesitant feel to the music. This is a result of rubato, a stylistic marking that gives the performer the freedom to stretch the tempo in their interpretation of the music. When combined with the captivating sweetness of the melody and the rolling sonority of the bass line, this lilting pace gives the piece a peaceful, almost waltz-like quality.
Our music for this week is the Overture to the “William Tell” opera by Gioachino Rossini.
Rossini wrote the four-part opera “William Tell” – the last of his 39 operas – in 1829. It tells the story of a legendary 14th-century Swiss archer William Tell, who got into political trouble for refusing to salute the Habsburg coat of arms. As his punishment, the Habsburg rulers forced Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head. The legend maintains that Tell successfully shot the apple off his son’s head, then whirled around and shot the Habsburg ruler through the heart.
This overture has become world famous as the theme song to the famous television show “The Lone Ranger.” It has also been featured in several feature-length films. It is hard not to hear the Silver’s hoofbeats and the firing of pistols when the music takes off.
As we near the final weeks of our countdown, the music for this week is Bolero by the French composer Maurice Ravel. This piece is an absolute requirement for any list of the greatest hits in classical music. Some have estimated that it is the world’s most frequently performed piece of music. Legend has it that George Lucas even thought about making it the theme tune for Star Wars.
You will notice the repetitive nature of the piece immediately. It has only one theme that is repeated over and over, with increasingly complex orchestration each time. Ravel had come across this idea while swimming on holiday and overhearing a street-side pianist developing a series of variations on a single theme. Bolero was Ravel’s way of using that idea on an orchestral scale. The piece begins with a single snare drum line – which never ceases – and builds from C Major to E Major (listen for the fantastically powerful key change) and concludes with a soaring display of sound.
As we have seen with many great composers, Ravel disliked Bolero. When a listener at the premier of the work shouted, “This is the work of a madman!” Ravel was heard to have muttered, “That person has understood.” He later said that “there is nothing musical” in Bolero and that it was no better than a composition student’s practice exercise. Nonetheless, Bolero has stood the test of time and remains one of the most memorable and popular pieces of music ever written.
This week we will hear Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“a little night music”). No list of the greatest hits would be complete without it.
We may know Mozart best for his piano compositions (or even this piece), but at the peak of his popularity he was primarily an opera composer. In fact, at the time he wrote the Nachtmusik, he was simultaneously composing his famous opera Don Giovanni (which, to be honest, also could have been featured on this list). He considered the Nachtmusik as an insignificant side project that was not worth publishing. In fact, the Nachtmusik was never performed in Mozart’s lifetime. It was discovered after his death by a German researcher who convinced Mozart’s widow to sell it for publication. It is therefore ironic that it has become one of his most well-known compositions.
Everything about the Nachtmusik is quintessentially Mozartian: the lightness of the bow strokes, the sense of barely-contained excitement, the operatic solo lines, etc. Notice the similarities between this piece and the format of an opera. For instance, each movement uses the 1st violin line to introduce a solo theme (essentially an aria) that returns at the end to wrap everything together.
Our music for this week features the first symphony of Johannes Brahms. It is hard to believe that Brahms hasn’t made it into our Top 25 until now, but he certainly deserves at least one spot. As with many of the other great composers on this countdown, choosing which Brahms composition to feature was very difficult. Brahms’ violin concerto, fourth symphony, Requiem, and piano concerto are all incredible works of music. However, I felt that the first symphony captured much of the emotional depth and intensity that Brahms brings to the table.
Brahms idolized his German predecessor Beethoven, and you can hear unmistakable echoes of Beethoven in this first symphony. It has been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” (Beethoven wrote nine symphonies) for this reason. Brahms supposedly put so much pressure on himself to adequately honor Beethoven with this symphony that he revised it for over five years. In fact, he had avoided writing a symphony until age 43 precisely because he wanted to build up enough experience with other compositions – chamber music, solo instrumental music, etc. – so that he had a better chance of meeting a Beethoven-esque standard when he finally arrived at the symphonic format. After this symphony had finally been premiered (with great success), it was as if Brahms breathed a huge sigh of relief. From that point onward, the floodgates opened; in the next decade, he completed three more symphonies and three concertos.
Structurally, this symphony progresses – as perhaps Brahms did himself – from cautious to confident. The opening movement is largely subdued and, at times, emotionally fraught. The final movement is heroic and unabashed.
We are continuing our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Adagio for Strings by American composer Samuel Barber.
Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.
This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates.
As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:
A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.
The sixteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the famous Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Moonlight Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most widely-known pieces, right up there with the Ninth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. He wrote it in 1801 while working as a teacher and court musician for a Hungarian baron. Most people assume that, with a name like “Moonlight Sonata,” this piece was meant to reflect a moon-lit stroll with a lover. However, Beethoven’s journal entries suggest that it was actually a memorial for a dear friend of his who had passed away around that time.
There are three movements in the sonata. Here’s what to listen for:
First is Adagio Sostenuto, which contains the famous Beethoven melody that we all know. Listen for the base line that reverberates throughout the entire movement. It provides a solemn grounding force that carries the melody through its many different permutations.
Second, you’ll hear the Allegretto. This movement could not be more different than the first movement. Think of this part as less of an individual movement and more of an emotional reprieve that Beethoven inserted between the first and third movements.
Third is the Presto Agitato, which starts at 9:14. This movement is the storm that so many Beethoven works are famous for. Listen for two themes – first, a theme composed of flying arpeggios, and second, a more lyrical melody that is reminiscent of the first movement.
The fifteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is “Autumn” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
No list of greatest hits would be complete without the Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s classic composition is one of the most commonly-performed pieces of music even today, and many of us have heard his “Spring” melodies in television advertisements and waiting room playlists. Today you will hear violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
The “Four Seasons” are essentially a set of four violin concertos in which each concerto represents one of the four seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi, who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling reviews.
As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.
The fourteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is Smetana’s Ma Vlast.
Bedrich Smetana was an ardent Czech nationalist whose claim to fame was to have created a uniquely Czech style of music. This is somewhat ironic, since he spoke mainly German, had studied at German music schools, and was heir to a tradition of classical music that was full of German composers (Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, etc). His fame and performing abilities were flourishing fantastically when he suddenly became deaf in 1874 at the peak of his career (yet another sadly ironic similarity to a famous German composer). Nonetheless, he embraced his new role as somewhat of a spokesperson for Czech music and wrote his massive set of Czech tone-poems titled Ma Vlast (meaning “My Country”) in 1879 with the goal of putting Czech music on the map once and for all.
Each of the tone-poems, all of which are written for full orchestra, reflect a different aspect of the Czech culture, land, or people. There is an opera entitled The Kiss, the famous melody of The Bartered Bride, and even a narrative of his life that ends with a high-pitched, ringing E that represents his elderly deafness.
The River Moldau Suite (Vltava) is undoubtedly the most famous tone-poem of the entire set. It describes the river that flows through Prague and includes specific depictions of places along the river that Smetana had visited himself. It begins in the mountains as a tiny brook – listen for the trickling water representation in woodwinds – and ends as a powerful, rushing river that courses through the Czech countryside and through downtown Prague (heard in the sweeping melodies played by the strings and the brass). Smetana noted in his description of the tone-poems that he had personally been to the mountain-top location where the Moldau started and had heard the folk music of the villages nearby. He also made sure to mention that he had ridden a boat through the rapids of the Moldau outside of Prague and also sailed through the city on its currents.
There isn’t a feat of orchestration or a set of amazing harmonic shifts that make this piece unique – it is simply just a beautiful piece of music with timeless melodies. You’ll wish you were in Prague!