I hope you enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s celebration! We are kicking off the new year with #13 in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite.
As with so many other composers, there are an endless number of options when it comes to Tchaikovsky. I could have chosen to highlight the Nutcracker ballet, his monumental piano concerto, or his soaring violin concerto. However,I felt that Swan Lake captured the range of Tchaikovsky’s style while also highlighting the genre for which he is most famous – ballet.
Swan Lake is a tragic story about the doomed love between Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette. While out hunting, Siegfried decides to follow a group of swans into the forest. One of them turns into a young woman (Odette), who tells him that she and her friends were turned into swans by an evil magician named Van Rothbart. The spell can only be broken with a promise of unfailing love, so the Prince pledges his love to Odette and promises to wed her at the palace. However, Van Rothbart sends his daughter, disguised as Odette, to the palace. Siegfried, thinking it is Odette, asks for her hand in marriage. When he and Odette discover that they have been tricked by Van Rothbart, they choose to die together by drowning themselves in Swan Lake rather than live under Van Rothbart’s spell.
But the ballet dancers who first tried to dance Swan Lake weren’t worried about the tragedy. They were worried about being able to dance the ballet at all. It was simply too difficult. Many ballet companies refused to even attempt it due to the complexity and physicality of the music.
Today, however, ballet companies around the world perform Swan Lake as one of the most popular ballets of all time. You will hear today a condensed orchestral version of the ballet.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach simply must be on any “top hits” list, and there may even be a legitimate argument that the entire list be dedicated to Bach. Such is his importance and position in the world of classical music.
Bach wrote the six Brandenburg concerti around the same time that he wrote his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, showcasing Bach’s preoccupation with numerology and symbolism. They were initially not very popular. Bach had written them as a resume-of-sorts in a kapellmeister job application for a local Duke. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he had applied for using the Brandenburg concerti, leading snarking commentators to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.” They now stand atop the world of music as some of the most foundational pieces ever written. They define the Baroque era of music while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that genre. They incorporate German, French, and Italian stylistic elements, and they feature a wide range of solo instruments.
You will hear the most famous of the Brandenburg concerti today. In this concerto, Bach utilizes the concerto grosso (small multi-movement ensemble featuring a group of soloists) format that gets introduced in the first concerto, but he decides not to feature a soloist. This was actually quite a controversial move, since the concerto grosso format was distinctly Italian (not his native German) and the featuring of soloists was considered a requirement of the genre. Bach, however, wasn’t deterred by the possibility of a negative public reaction. He continued to create controversy by adding something that we don’t often see until the mid-Classical period (18th century) – a cadenza (an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes). Listen for the lead violinist’s cadenza in the middle movement of this concerto.
Our music for this week is the Overture to Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
You probably know it as the Bugs Bunny theme song (or Robin Williams’ hilarious aria in Mrs. Doubtfire), but it was originally the overture to a fantastically popular Rossini opera. Part of its appeal may have been due to the fact that The Barber of Seville was the fourth occasion for which Rossini had recycled the tune. By the time they heard this opera, Rossini’s listeners were likely quite familiar with the tune.
While the opera has remained relevant in today’s musical circles, it is the overture that has transcended its composition and become worthy of a spot in this Top 25 Countdown. However, the play upon which it was based – also titled The Barber of Seville – was notorious as a raunchy, low-budget production that wasn’t worth seeing. Rossini knew that he was pushing the limits of public acceptance by presenting this particular play in opera form. Therefore, in an effort to avoid public disfavor, he premiered his Barber of Seville under a different name – Almaviva, or “Useless Precaution.” The trick worked – the audience was fooled and his Barber of Seville was a great success!
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The “Rite of Spring” was a complete scandal when it was first performed. Stravinsky wrote it as the score for a French ballet in 1929, and the audience was horrified by Stravinsky’s disregard for conventional harmonic structures. When combined with Russian Ballet director Serge Diaghilev’s jolting choreography, the dissonant sounds of Stravinsky’s music were anything but “spring”-like. However, this notoriety ended up serving “The Rite of Spring” well. It is now performed just as often in orchestral settings as it is in ballet settings. The music has come to define an era of music.
“The Rite of Spring” is based on a representation of Russian rituals and culture that Stravinsky had been wanting to compose for many years. The themes are simple and dark, depicting furious storms and violent struggles. Stravinsky described it as “a musical-choreographic work . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” There is no specific storyline that unifies “The Rite of Spring,” just a serious of separately choreographed scenes that represent moments in time.
I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family!
This week, we will hear a piece that those of you who have been here for awhile have definitely heard before – Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. It is performed in the video above by the Limburgs Symphony (Amsterdam) under the direction of Maestro Otto Tausk.
The Peer Gynt Suite is a musical rendition of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 drama “Peer Gynt,” which depicted the story of a Norwegian peasant-hero. Initially, Ibsen did not intend for the play to be performed with musical accompaniment. However, halfway through the composition process, he changed his mind and reached out to his good friend Edvard Grieg. Despite having no experience writing music for plays, Grieg agreed to create a score for the production of “Peer Gynt.” Ibsen’s play has largely been forgotten, but Grieg’s musical representation of it has become a central component of the musical universe.
There are four movements in the Peer Gynt Suite. First, you’ll hear “Morning,” which opens the drama with the awakening of the hero character. Second, you’ll hear “The Death of Ase,” which creates the primary tension in the drama. Third, you’ll hear “Anitra’s Dance.” Fourth and finally, you’ll hear what may be the most famous of all Grieg’s compositions: “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” This is one of the most well-known and widely-loved orchestral compositions of all time, and I trust that, after hearing it, you’ll see why.
Number 10 on our list of the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is George Frederic Handel’s “Water Music.”
I am willing to guarantee that most of you have heard at least some portion of the Water Music before. Like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Water Music has somehow been incorporated seamlessly into modern culture (think TV car advertisements and dentist-office background music). The video above shows a performance of Suite No. 1, but there are actually three suites that make up the Water Music. Suite No. 1 is by far the most popular, in part because it includes such a wide variety of musical styles and formats. It begins with a French Overture, progresses through Bourees, Minuets, and a range of other movements before ending with perhaps the most famous movement in the entire composition – the Hornpipe.
You’ll notice the prevalence of the brass in this piece. Most of the main melodic material is performed by the brass, and the strings function as background sound. This is because Water Music was written to be performed outside. In fact, King George I commissioned Handel to write music that would be played on his royal barge as he was rowed up the River Thames. Wanting to make sure the sound carried across the water, Handel orchestrated the Water Music with plenty of brass power.
But it gets a bit more complicated than that. As it turns out, the composition process for the Water Music had brought out the stylistic differences between Handel and King George I. After many disagreements, Handel was fired. Many historians believe the Water Music – which is stylistically quite different from the way Handel wanted to write at the time – was a peace offering to the King. In other words, there was a lot riding on this open-air performance.
The Water Music was so popular with the
King that he requested it be performed three times! That’s nearly six consecutive
hours of playing for the court musicians. Handel’s goal, however, was
accomplished. He had won back the good graces of King George I and, in the process,
had penned some of the most memorable melodies of all time.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music. We will hear the Piano Quintet in A Major by Franz Schubert, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. It is performed by the principal string members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (the first chair members of each string section – violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, violist Mate Szucs, cellist Bruno Delepelaire, and double bassist Matthew McDonald) with Yannick Rafalimanana on piano.
Quintet is one of the most widely performed pieces of chamber music in all of classical
music. Along with the Mendelssohn octet and a few other mainstays, it is
featured at nearly every chamber music festival in the world.
wrote the Trout Quintet while on vacation in the Austrian alps. The fact that
he was overwhelmed by the “inconceivable” beauty of the mountains is clearly
evident in the joyous, even rapturous lyricism of the piece. Albert Einstein,
himself an amateur violinist who loved chamber music, wrote that “we cannot
help but love” the Trout Quintet. It is Schubert at his carefree best, with no
hint of the somber colors that he began to explore after contracting syphilis
in his later years.
It is important
to note that this is chamber music. In other words, the Trout Quintet was not
meant to be performed in a concert hall. It was meant to be performed in a
living room or some other intimate setting for friends and family. This has
significant implications not just for how the quintet is to be performed but
also how it is to be heard.
A few comments
on each of the four movements:
The first movement is unforgettable. Listen for the main theme at 1:53.
The second movement has two parts – see if you can tell them apart.
The third movement, a Scherzo, turns the second movement’s two parts on their head, reverses their order, and doubles their speed.
The fourth movement is the most important. It is a set of variations on the tune of Die Forelle, or in German, “The Trout.” Die Forelle was a short song written by Schubert in 1817 for soprano and piano. He created this song by setting to music the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart about a trout being caught by a fisherman.
The Quintet finishes with an Allegro that revisits the Die Forelle theme a few times.
We are breaking into twentieth-century music for the first time in the Top 25! Our music for today is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:
The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.
The seventh installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky wrote the overture in 1880 to commemorate the Russian army’s successful defense against Napoleon’s invading forces in 1812. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-loved and widely-performed compositions. As you will see from the video, it is often performed with much fanfare at Independence Day celebrations around the world.
Despite the fact that it rocketed him to international fame, Tchaikovsky disliked the 1812 Overture. He defined it as “very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” The success of the overture convinced him that the world cared more about theatrical fanfare than it did about the deep personal expression that he put into his other compositions. (I personally find it hard to believe he wrote it without love; some of the folk songs that he weaves into the earlier parts of the overture are stunningly beautiful).
The context for the overture (the 1812 defense of Russia) gives it an amazing storyline. Tchaikovsky introduces Russian folk songs through the piece, and they trade places with the French national anthem multiple times. At the 11-minute mark, the Russian folk songs, along with artillery fire and an ample dose of timpani, drown out the French national anthem at the close of the overture. The overture ends with the French anthem morphing into the Russian anthem “God Preserve the Tzar.” The symbolism is unmistakeable.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E Minor.
This was a difficult one to choose. There are so many fantastic and worthy Mendelssohn compositions to pick from – his light-hearted Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his delightful Songs Without Words, and his rollicking string octet. But his violin concerto is in a class of its own. I chose it because it is perhaps the closest thing to perfection in the entire violin repertoire. Everything in this concerto is perfectly balanced – texturally, harmonically, technically, emotionally – and I think the violinist Kirill Troussov does a marvelous job of bringing that across while also adding his own unique flavor.
The perfection of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is a result of the seven years Mendelssohn took to write it. He revised and edited relentlessly, striving for the perfectly-proportioned concerto. This approach may be explainable in light of who he wrote it for – his good friend, the violin virtuoso Ferdinand David. As a pianist who held David in very high esteem, Mendelssohn harbored a deep insecurity about his ability to write for the violin and was worried about letting his friend down.
David was known to have a light, airy, almost Mozartian sound that was best utilized in a chamber music setting (as opposed to a solo setting). You will hear the concerto’s chamber-music-like qualities throughout the second movement in particular, where the violinist and orchestra converse with frequent thematic trade-offs. You will also hear – particularly in the third movement – the kind of lightness and youth that is reported to have characterized David’s playing.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto isn’t just about balance. It’s also about trailblazing, new ideas, and bravery. In fact, Mendelssohn took a lot of risks in the way he composed this concerto. For instance, he put the solo cadenza (a fancy word for “the time where the soloist gets to show off without the orchestra slowing him down”) in the middle rather than the end of the concerto. Another risk was the blending of the three movements together with no break in between them. The fact that Mendelssohn was able to incorporate these new ideas into his concerto while maintaining its elegance is yet another testimony to his genius.