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!
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 snarky 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!