It’s Back to School season and that means kids are heading back to the classroom – whether on campus or at home. These are truly unprecedented times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still celebrate students’ returning to learning, and what better way to do so than with music.
Here is a short list of classical music related to school:
Brahms – Academic Festival Overture
With the word “Academic” in its name, it’s not surprising that this concert overture made the list. Brahms composed the work during the summer of 1880 as a tribute to the University of Breslau after the school notified him that it would award him an honorary doctorate in philosophy. Originally, the composer wanted to send a simple note to the University as an acknowledgement of the award. The conductor who nominated him for the degree convinced him to make a grander gesture instead. However, the resulting piece is anything but a serious, solemn tribute to education. It is filled with a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé”. Brahms himself conducted the premiere of the overture at a special convocation held by the University and it is said that there was an “ironic” contrast between the mood of the student drinking songs and the seriousness of the ceremony.
Holst – St. Paul’s Suite
Gustav Holst served as the music master at St. Paul’s Girls’ School from 1905 until his death in 1934. He was grateful to the school for building a soundproof teaching room for him and as thanks, he wrote this suite. It was the first of many pieces he wrote for the school. This work in particular stands out thanks to the robust jig in the 1st movement and the instantly recognizable “Greensleeves” melody in the 4th movement that he expertly blends with the folksong “Dargason”.
Paradis – Der Schulkandidat
Maria Theresia von Paradis’ story is an amazing example of talent triumphing over disability. Despite being blind since the age of about 5, she learned to play piano and sing and studied composition under Antonio Salieri. She composed numerous pieces including works for the stage like her opera Der Schulkandidat (which roughly translates to “The School Candidate” or “The School Applicant”. Unfortunately, most of her manuscripts have been lost. One that survives is the overture to her Der Schulkandidat which the Parker Symphony performed in February 2020.
Vivaldi – Gloria in D
Maybe the most unlikely addition to this list, Vivaldi’s Gloria in D is a sacred work written around 1715 and most likely for the choir of the Ospedale della Pietà – an orphanage and music school for girls in Venice. Established in the 14th century, it became well-known for its all-female music ensembles by the 17th and 18th centuries and attracted tourists and patrons from around Europe. Vivaldi served as violin teacher and later as music director between 1703 and 1740 and wrote many of his works, including sacred pieces, for the music students for performance at the Pietà.
Dyson – Woodland Suite
Sir George Dyson is a relatively unknown name even in classical music circles. In fact, his music underwent a period of neglect until it was revived in the late 20th century. After studying at the Royal College of Music in London and serving in the First World War, he became a school master and college lecturer. During that time, he composed pieces with a very traditional, pastoral feel, many designed for use in schools. His Woodland Suite is one such piece written for strings with optional woodwind parts so it could be adapted easily for different instrumentation.
Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1
What would a list of school related classical music be without the infamous graduation song? Contrary to popular belief, the piece is actually number 1 of 6 “Pomp and Circumstance” marches that Elgar wrote. Interestingly, while it has become the ubiquitous graduation song, it was actually named after a line in Shakespeare’s Othello about war.
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
So how did it become a graduation piece? It was played in 1905 when Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, but it was played as a recessional, not as a processional. After that, Princeton used it, then the University of Chicago, and then Columbia. Eventually, everyone started to use it and the rest is history.