This week’s music is a piece that routinely features in the conversation of “most beautiful music of all time”: the Overture to Act I of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal.”
Parsifal was written in 1882. The storyline is the search for the Holy Grail and the adventures that arise along the way. Parsifal, who doesn’t arrive until later in the story, confronts numerous curses, betrayals, and other challenges on his journey to uncover the Holy Grail. He is eventually crowned king. The story, which has equivalents across the literature of multiple ancient civilizations, is timeless, but I think the music is the best part.
This overture is a trumpet player’s dream. The trumpet is featured as the primary melodic instrument, and it has multiple moments in the spotlight. Listen at 2:15 for the trumpet’s first presentation of the melody – one of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of music. You’ll hear another presentation of the melody, this time with more harmonic support from the strings, at 4:30. I appreciate the way this video focuses on the trumpet player and gives you a close-up view of his performance.
This week’s music is the second installment in our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. We will be hearing pianist Valentina Lisitsa play the Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2.
This is one of the most famous Nocturnes. It is beguiling yet simple, usually relying on a single melodic line and avoiding escalation until the very end. For this reason, it is particularly popular among young pianists who are beginning their journey into the music of Chopin.
Listen for the flowing melodic line. As we learned last week, Chopin was “enamored of flowing song” and drew much of his inspiration from opera music. His fellow pianist Wladyslaw Zelenski said that “Italian song was always his ideal.” You can hear the right hand of the pianist drawing out what could almost be a soprano aria line.
Chopin may have made the Nocturne famous, but he didn’t invent it. That honor goes to the Irish composer John Field, who wrote dozens of them for piano and other instruments. The Nocturne you will hear today is quite similar to many of those written by John Field, so it is likely that Chopin studied Field’s work as he developed his own compositions. However, Chopin’s works have, as Polish piano virtuoso Jan Kleczynski has noted, that “certain tinge of earnest sadness” that makes them so uniquely beautiful.
Our music this week is the famous Nessun Dorma aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” It is performed by Jonas Kaufmann, the world’s greatest living tenor. Made famous by Pavarotti, it is one of the most well-known pieces in the entire opera repertoire.
The words “nessun dorma” are translated as “none shall sleep.” In the opera, Princess Turandot says to her subjects that “no one shall sleep tonight” until they find out who her lover is. She doesn’t want to know his name because she is interested in him; she wants to know his name so she can have him killed. Apparently Princess Turandot was quite interested in remaining single. At this point, the hero of the story (the tenor) breaks into the aria that you will hear today, saying that while no one will sleep tonight, he will win the Princess’ hand in the morning. Sure enough, after a sleepless and bloodthirsty night, the Princess comes to him and says that she has found love with him.
This opera is more than just a sappy and somewhat morbid love story. It is also a powerful piece of cultural commentary. Puccini wrote it in 1920 after the upheaval of World War I. This was a time in which many people were questioning whether love and beauty still existed. He sought to answer this question through the opera Turandot, which depicts love and hope eventually shining through the darkness and brutality of Princess Turandot’s cruel kingdom. By the end of his life, this paradox had become a theme in nearly every single one of Puccini’s operas.
Our music for this week is the famous “Habanera” melody from Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Carmen is one of the world’s most beloved operas. Its melodies are unforgettable, and its storyline is a classic tragedy that has captivated the hearts of millions around the world. Carmen tells the story of a soldier named Don Jose, who is seduced by a gypsy named Carmen. She convinces Don Jose to abandon his childhood sweetheart and desert his job in the army. However, the torero Escamillo then catches her eye and she leaves Don Jose behind, causing him to be so overwhelmed with jealousy that he kills her.
On a personal note, Carmen has a special place in my heart. When I was fifteen years old, I had the privilege of performing as a soloist with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece I performed was Carmen Fantasy, written by the 19th-century Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Since Carmen Fantasy is a violin showpiece based on the melodic themes of the opera Carmen, I spent hours listening to the opera in preparation for the performance. Hearing Carmen’s melodies still brings back memories of the adrenaline rush of walking out on stage that night.
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.
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 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!
Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.
Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).
It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.
are as follows:
“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine With the roses entwined together On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning Let us descend together!
floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine Ah! calling us Together!”
Welcome a new series on the music of the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein! We’ll explore his greatest hits, his movie scores, his Broadway songs, and some of his more obscure works that (I believe) deserve more attention than they get.
Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important figures in American music. He was a composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian. After training with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s legendary conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Bernstein embarked on an incredible career at the helm of the world-renowned New York Philharmonic.
While Bernstein is probably most famous for his score to West Side Story, he wrote many other compositions that were just as spectacular. One of these is the 1949 film On the Town (adapted from the 1944 Broadway play by the same name), which starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin on a 24-hour exploration of New York City. The lyrics tell us that New York is “a wonderful town” and “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” While the lyrics and the upbeat tune are the deserving focus, the music itself is not as basic as it may seem. Bernstein actually composed the entire film score for On the Town based on a single theme. In other words, every song is a variation on the same set of tonalities. Even within this tune, Bernstein creates a variation on the opening theme by adding sixteenth (faster) notes to the last iteration of the theme.
Our music for this week is the “Ruler of the Spirits Overture” by little-known Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber. This overture was originally intended for an opera that Weber never ended up publishing. You can hear the dramatic elements from the very first note.
Weber is not a composer that we hear about very often, but he was an amazing person. He exemplified the ideal of a Renaissance man, pursuing composing, conducting, writing, painting, and poetry. He is best known for his opera Der Freischutz, which is seen as one of the most important expressions of Germany’s musical heritage.
Weber was born into a musical family that traveled the European countryside as a performing troupe. He was appointed as a lead musician in the court of King Frederick I of Württemberg, but his carefree upbringing had instilled in him a restlessness and resistance to structure that quickly got him banished from that court. He resumed his gypsy lifestyle and rose to fame as a piano virtuoso before being appointed conductor of the opera in Prague in 1813. He seemed to have learned his lesson by this point, for he managed to hold this job for many successful years.
We can thank Weber for the opera genre, since before he came along, the opera was scorned in most European countries (except, of course, Italy). Weber’s brave introduction of the opera format into German musical circles is one of the primary reasons that we can enjoy great operas today.