Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.
The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.
Our music for this week is the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, performed by the superstar trio of Leonidas Kavakos, Yo Yo Ma, and Emmanuel Ax.
You won’t find a better ensemble than this one. Each of these three musicians is at the top of their respective instrumental fields. Yo Yo Ma rose to fame as a child prodigy and continues to amaze crowds around the world with his bravado and energy. Emmanuel Ax has dominated the world of the piano since winning the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974. Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most versatile musicians and conductors alive today, has been atop the violin world since his victory at the Sibelius and Paganini competitions in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The three of them have been touring the world for several years now, playing the best of the piano trio repertoire to packed audiences around the globe.
The second piano trio of Brahms was composed at the height of his compositional maturity. By this point in his career, he had overcome the massive shadow that Beethoven cast on all who followed him. He was now writing music with the comfort of a well-established reputation behind him, and this confidence comes through in his music. The third movement of the C Major trio exudes confidence while also combining elements of Romanticism and Classicism into a cohesive whole. There are strands of Mendelssohn in the dark emotionality of the movement, but there are also playful sections that remind the listener of Beethoven’s lighter moods.
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.
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.