This week’s music is the Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner’s famous opera Lohengrin. It is performed by the Gurzenich Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon.
Lohengrin is one of the most (over?) dramatic storylines in the opera repertoire. Elsa (no, not the Elsa from Disney’s Frozen) falls in love with a mysterious knight who will not reveal his identity to her. After repeated tries to discover his name, Elsa succeeds in getting the knight to admit – on their wedding night – that he is Lohengrin, a mythical divinity sent to protect Elsa from harm. But there’s a catch: part of Lohengrin’s divinity involves a curse, and the curse means that he must disappear if his identity is ever revealed. He suddenly vanishes, leaving Elsa so stricken with grief that she dies on the spot.
The Prelude to Act III that you will hear today comes right before the wedding, when things are still going well for Elsa. It isn’t long before everything does downhill in a hurry. But at this point, life is still good. Wagner therefore opens the Prelude with a shimmering wave of brass and percussion that create a sense of excitement and forward movement. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a tambourine near the beginning.
Our music for this week the Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is known by the nickname “Jupiter,” which was coined by the British philanthropist Johann Salomon as he advertised performances of the symphony in 19th-century London. Why the name “Jupiter”? No one knows, but it is likely that the sheer size and majestic key of C Major may have inspired Salomon’s grand view of the composition.
Here are a few things to listen for in each movement:
The first movement is all about lyricism. Mozart, you may remember, was a masterful opera composer and often incorporated the romanticism of operatic music into his symphonies. (For you opera buffs out there, listen for the melodic quotation from Don Giovanni).
The second movement is unique among Mozart’s works because the strings play with mutes. Watch the musicians between the first and second movements slide mutes over the bridges of their instruments in order to dull the sound.
The third movement, in true Mozartian fashion, is a dance.
The fourth movement is where you should pay close attention. It is a fugue based entirely on four notes, yet it also follows sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation – for those of you who are just joining us). In a masterful feat of compositional genius, Mozart borrowed from the fugal brilliance of Bach and the sonata format of his contemporaries and created a generational masterpiece.
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 Rondo in G Minor for Cello by Antonin Dvorak, performed by Michaela Fukacova.
In the early 1890s, Dvorak spent several months traveling Europe with the German violinist Ferdinan Lachner and Bohemian cellist Hanus Wihan. Over the course of those months, he realized that there was a significant repertoire gap between the two instruments. There was simply far more music written for the violin than for the cello. The Rondo in G Minor was one of three pieces Dvorak wrote in order to help the cello gain some ground.
Dvorak represented the cello well. You’ll notice right away that the piece beautifully showcases the lyrical aspect of the cello’s voice. However, the latter portion of the piece also gives the cellist a few technical challenges that provide an opportunity for some impressive virtuosity. This is consistent with Dvorak’s desire to give the cello more public recognition, particularly since it had long been viewed as a solely accompaniment instrument.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know by now that Dvorak was a passionate Czech nationalist. His music is replete with melodies drawn straight from Czech folk tunes, and the Rondo in G Minor is no exception. The opening melody, for instance, has hints of his usual Slavic-style dance structure, and even the more virtuosic sections are tinged with a lilting dance-like texture.
We are at the end of our countdown! And what a journey it’s been! We’ve covered over four centuries of music in these 25 posts, ranging from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Samuel Barber’s Adagio and everything in between. I thought it only fitting that we end with one of the most famous compositions ever written by an American composer – the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.
Copland composed Rodeo in 1942. He had previously written a western-style ballet called Billy the Kid that had been met with only moderate success, so he was wary of writing another. However, he was convinced when the Hollywood choreographer Agnes de Mille told him that Rodeo would essentially be “the Taming of the Shrew – with cowboys!” “Hoedown” has since become such a core piece of American musical heritage that it was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The ballet consists of five sections. First, there is “Buckaroo Holiday,” which introduces the Wild West context of the ballet and the main character, known as Cowgirl. Second is “Corral Nocturne,” in which a lovesick Cowgirl wanders an empty corral at night. Third, there is “Ranch House Party,” which contrasts a rollicking dance theme with a more pensive clarinet line in order to portray the loneliness felt by Cowgirl despite her many friends. Fourth is “Saturday Night Waltz,” in which Cowgirl falls in love with a cowboy named Roper. Finally, there is the “Hoedown,” which is what we will hear today. This section of the ballet is meant to portray the happiness and exuberance of love as well as the boundless energy of the Wild West legend surrounding the ballet as a whole.
I hope you enjoy this final installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music series, but more importantly, I hope you’ve benefited from this series. Perhaps it has helped you grasp the unbelievable breadth of music that is included within the small phrase “classical music.” Perhaps it has introduced you to new music that hadn’t heard before, or maybe it was a stroll down the memory lane of “greatest hits” that you hadn’t dug up in a while. Or perhaps it has helped you narrow your tastes a bit and given you a more nuanced understanding of what it is about classical music that appeals to you. Either way, I hope you have benefited from this series and have had some fun along the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.