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.
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.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E Minor.
This was a difficult one to choose. There are so many fantastic and worthy Mendelssohn compositions to pick from – his light-hearted Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his delightful Songs Without Words, and his rollicking string octet. But his violin concerto is in a class of its own. I chose it because it is perhaps the closest thing to perfection in the entire violin repertoire. Everything in this concerto is perfectly balanced – texturally, harmonically, technically, emotionally – and I think the violinist Kirill Troussov does a marvelous job of bringing that across while also adding his own unique flavor.
The perfection of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is a result of the seven years Mendelssohn took to write it. He revised and edited relentlessly, striving for the perfectly-proportioned concerto. This approach may be explainable in light of who he wrote it for – his good friend, the violin virtuoso Ferdinand David. As a pianist who held David in very high esteem, Mendelssohn harbored a deep insecurity about his ability to write for the violin and was worried about letting his friend down.
David was known to have a light, airy, almost Mozartian sound that was best utilized in a chamber music setting (as opposed to a solo setting). You will hear the concerto’s chamber-music-like qualities throughout the second movement in particular, where the violinist and orchestra converse with frequent thematic trade-offs. You will also hear – particularly in the third movement – the kind of lightness and youth that is reported to have characterized David’s playing.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto isn’t just about balance. It’s also about trailblazing, new ideas, and bravery. In fact, Mendelssohn took a lot of risks in the way he composed this concerto. For instance, he put the solo cadenza (a fancy word for “the time where the soloist gets to show off without the orchestra slowing him down”) in the middle rather than the end of the concerto. Another risk was the blending of the three movements together with no break in between them. The fact that Mendelssohn was able to incorporate these new ideas into his concerto while maintaining its elegance is yet another testimony to his genius.
Our music for this week – and the fifth installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music – is the famous Symphony No. 9 by Dvorak, popularly known as the “New World Symphony.”
Internationally-renowned Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emigrated to the United States in 1892 to take conservatory teaching position in New York. This was right around the time that the country was exploding with new inventions. Carnegie Hall had just been built, baseball was the country’s new favorite pastime, and steam engines were the greatest power source to yet arrive (although Henry Ford was closing in fast on his Model T). Dvorak was overwhelmed. After getting his bearings, he penned the symphony you will hear today, titling it “From the New World.”
Within months of his move, Dvorak became obsessed with the musical genre of black spirituals. He began incorporating many of these tunes into his music. For instance, if you listen closely you will hear the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement of the “New World Symphony.” Likewise, the second movement “Largo” – although not originally a spiritual – was later rewritten by one of Dvorak’s students and set to words in that genre. This melody has become so popular that it is frequently found in hymnals and other compilations of religious tradition. However, it has transcended its genre and been used for many other contexts. For instance, it was played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford’s funerals and was the inspiration for pianist Art Tatum’s 1949 “Largo Swing.”
The famous Largo (second movement) starts at minute 12:56. Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the best conductors on earth, has said that this melody perfectly encapsulates the idea of homesickness. Others have said it describes longing, and still others have said that it is the musical expression of restfulness. Regardless of what it means to you, I can assure that you won’t soon forget it.
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This fourth installment in our Top 25 series is the Blue Danube Waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss.
You’re more likely to hear the Blue Danube Waltz
on New Year’s Day than on October 5th, but it has to be on this countdown
because is one of the most popular and well-loved pieces ever written. As a
result of this waltz’s success, Strauss was nicknamed “The Waltz King.”
However, the New Year’s Day tradition in which the Vienna Philharmonic performs this waltz to listeners around the globe belies the less-than-pleasant circumstances of its writing. Strauss essentially wrote the waltz to cheer up his country. Austria had just been defeated by Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War and was in the midst of a post-war economic downturn. He based it on a Karl Beck poem that included the line “By the Danube, the beautiful blue Danube,” and made it his mission to lift the spirits of Austria with a upbeat and memorable waltz.
There are five distinct themes in this waltz. The delightful
video for today’s music does a fantastic job of displaying these five themes
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.