Our music for this week is the “Konzertmusik for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50” by German composer Paul Hindemith. The Konzertmusik was written in 1930 at the request of legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky. It is the third “Konzertmusik” written by Hindemith in the year 1930, pairing with the “Konzertmusik for Viola and Chamber Orchestra” and the “Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass, and Harp.”
Hindemith, who lived from 1865 to 1963, is a contemporary of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and other mid-twentieth century composers whose music reflects the experience of living through two world wars. (Hindemith, whose wife was Jewish, was particularly shaped by the second world war). His music incorporates atonal strains of Romantic-era lyricism with jarring infusions of post-modern orchestration. Like other composers of this time, Hindemith sought to portray the struggle of rebuilding society in the wake of international conflict. In particular, he embraced the globalization of culture, language, and artistic heritage. His music reflects this viewpoint; one can hear the melodic lines of Italian opera, the full-blooded strength of the late Romantic era, the intrigue of Ravel’s turn-of-the-century Orientalism, and much more.
There are two parts to the Konzertmusik: Massig schnell, mit Kraft – Sehr breit, aber stets fliebend (“moderately fast, with power – very broad, but always flowing) and Lebhaft – Langsam – Im ersten Zeitmab (“Fast – Slow – Tempo primo”). These descriptions are, I believe, helpful when listening to this work. The varying tempi of this composition can make it difficult to pick out its melodic patterns, so having a perspective of “very broad, but always flowing” is instructive for understanding the atmosphere the composer is trying to convey.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.