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!
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.
The third installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar, performed by Jacqueline du Pre.
First, the concerto. Elgar’s cello concerto is a tour de force. Its soaring heights and delicately-shaped melodies hardly suggest the fact that while he wrote it, Elgar was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. As he transitioned back to his home in Brinkwell, England, he spent the majority of every day of the summer of 1919 writing this concerto. His work was interrupted only by daily firewood-chopping duties.
Unlike most concerti, Elgar’s cello concerto is not always flashy or powerful. In fact, it can sometimes seem quite timid, almost too private. The opening roar of the cello solo, as spine-tingling as it is, quickly gives way to an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to find. Even the passion of the Adagio in the first movement (the main theme of the concerto) is reserved at points. This is a reflection of Elgar’s waning health, his wife’s impending passing, and the loneliness that he dealt with later in life. It is interesting that he chose to use the cello to convey these very personal emotions – not the more common violin or piano. Perhaps he saw something in the dark, rich colors of the cello that spoke to him.
Second, the cellist. Jacqueline du Pre is one of the most beloved musicians of all time and one of the most talented cellists to ever live. Her performing career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28 (she later passed away at 42 years old), but we are fortunate to have video and audio recordings of her performances of the Elgar concerto. In this video, she is only twenty years old. It is sadly fitting that she is the performer of a concerto that is part expose, part poetic epithet, part elegy.
Welcome to the second installment to our new series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music of All Time! Today we will be hearing Daniel Barenboim play Mozart’s piano sonata No. 11 in A Major. All three movements of this sonata are beautiful, but the third movement (starting at 18:50), called Rondo Alla Turca, is by far the most popular.
what you need to know:
The first movement is an Andante grazioso (which translates roughly to “walking gracefully”) based on a simple 8-measure theme that you will hear at the very opening of the movement. The rest of the movement is a series of variations on that theme. Listen to the various ways that Mozart uses running passages, chords, and rhythmic patterns to create variation!
The second movement is a two-for-one deal! Mozart includes a minuet and a trio in this movement. It begins just after minute 13. Listen for the switch between the two sub-movements.
The third movement – the famous Alla Turca movement – is one of Mozart’s best-known pieces. It translates roughly to “Turkish March” or “Turkish Rondo.” At the time he composed it, Mozart (along with most of northern Europe) was infatuated with Turkish music. Listen for the march-like section at around 19:30 that imitates the drums of the traveling Turkish Janissary bands that performed throughout Europe’s major cities during Mozart’s time.