Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is by far one of the most well-known and frequently played Christmas songs, having been named “most popular” by ASCAP in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2015. It’s been translated into numerous languages and is performed every December by orchestras across the country. But his is not the first orchestral sleigh ride piece nor is it the only classical sleigh ride music worth listening to. Here are 5 classical music “Sleigh Ride” alternatives that should be on your playlist.
Prokofiev – “Troika” from Lieutenant Kijé
A troika is a Russian sleigh drawn by a trio of horses. So it’s no wonder that this portion of the Lieutenant Kijé Suite features sleigh bells and rapid pizzicato in between a repeating quick-paced melody. The music was written as part of a film score for a 1934 film also titled “Lieutenant Kijé”. You may also recognize the melody from another Christmas song – Greg Lake borrowed the tune for his “I Believe in Father Christmas”.
Delius – Sleigh Ride
English composer Frederick Delius fondly recalled the summers he spent in Norway in the 1880s. In 1887, he spent Christmas Eve with fellow composer Grieg and first performed his Sleigh Ride on the piano. Grieg’s influence can clearly be heard in the piece which portrays a lively sleigh ride that eventually comes to rest in the stillness of a northern winter’s night. Delius later wrote the orchestral version which was originally titled “Winter Night”.
Mozart – “Schlittenfahrt” from Three German Dances
“Schlittenfahrt” means “sleigh ride” and is the third movement in this series of dances written by Mozart in 1791. Some scholars believe this dance was written independently of the others because of its very different style. Like other sleigh ride pieces, “Schlittenfahrt” features sleigh bells and a repeating phrase that is passed between instruments.
Ibert – “Sleigh Ride” from Petite Suite
Here’s a lesser-known classical sleigh ride, but one that’s still perfect for this list. Jacques Ibert had a knack for writing sprightly, witty works and “Sleigh Ride” is no exception.
Tchaikovsky – “November” from The Seasons
Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a set of 12 short pieces for solo piano. Each piece represents a different month of the year. “November”, also known as “Troika”, is considered the most challenging piece with its rapidly moving melodic flow and and “outbursts” to forte.
Classical is a popular genre when it comes to dinner music, particularly Thanksgiving dinner, but not all pieces work well in this setting. Put on Verdi’s Requiem or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and you may be serving a sense of foreboding with your sides. On the other hand, Brahms’ Lullaby, while famous and lovely, may only enhance the already soporific effect of a heavy meal. So what should you add to your dinner playlist? How about Tafelmusik.
What is Tafelmusik? In German, it literally means “table music” and it’s been around since the mid-16th century. It is music that was often played at feasts and banquets and can be instrumental, vocal, or both. Composers of Tafelmusik include Johann Schein and Michael Praetorius, but perhaps the most celebrated collection is that of Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann’s version has been compared to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos in that it is a supreme example of the composer’s skill in writing for a variety of instruments.
Telemann’s Tafelmusik was originally named Musique de table and was immensely successful upon publication – with an unprecedented 206 advance purchases, 52 of which came from abroad. It came, however, toward the end of the musical form’s life in 1733 (Tafelmusik was most popular during the 1600’s). Still, it supports the same philosophy as earlier Baroque examples – that life’s delights (eating and artful music) should meet. And because of that, it is as perfectly at home at celebratory dinners today as it was in the past.
The collection consists of over four hours of instrumental ensemble music which is long enough to last through any dinner party, Thanksgiving, luncheon, or any other meal. It features a cornucopia of styles and instruments including bassoon, oboe, trumpet, harpsichord, and strings that all delight the senses with truly vivid music. It has been described as brilliant, dazzling, and infectious music.
Halloween is here! And if you’re looking for spooky, creepy, or monstrous music for your playlist, you’re in luck. Check out our 12 favorite Halloween classical music pieces below.
1. Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
With a title that includes the word “macabre”, you can tell it’s a great piece for Halloween. This is by far the most famous work associated with the holiday, and with good reason. It is a tone poem inspired by a French legend that says “Death” appears at midnight on Halloween to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him. He plays the fiddle while skeletons dance until dawn.
2. Dvořák – The Water Goblin
The Water Goblin is a symphonic poem that tells a horrific story of a mischievous goblin who traps drowning souls in upturned teacups. It begins by depicting the water goblin sitting by a lake sewing a green coat and red boots for his wedding. Then a mother is telling her daughter a dream she had about her daughter in white robes swirling in foaming water. Fearing it was a foreshadow of danger, she warns her daughter not to go to the lake. Of course, the daughter is drawn to the lake despite the warnings. The bridge she sits on collapses and, as she falls into the water, the goblin abducts her. He takes her to his underwater castle and marries her. They have a child together and she begs the goblin to allow her to visit her mother. He agrees on 3 conditions: that she not embrace anyone, that she leaves the baby behind, and that she returns by the bells of the evening vespers. She visits her mother who forbids her to return when the bells ring. The water goblin becomes enraged and goes to the mother’s home and bangs on the door. When he is refused, he kills the child.
3. Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
Another famous piece commonly associated with Halloween, Night on Bald Mountain paints a musical picture of a witch’s sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve. Interestingly, the original piece composed by Mussorgsky is not the version you typically hear. That was only published in 1968 and is performed very rarely. The piece we have come to know (and hear in places like Walt Disney’s Fantasia is an arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov.
4. Berlioz – “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique
Often referred to as the “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath”, it is the 5th movement of Berlioz’s grand Symphonie Fantastique. Each movement of the symphony depicts an episode in the protagonist’s life (an artist who poisoned himself with opium out of unrequited love). The program notes in the original score for the 5th movement are as follows:
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
5. Ryan Smith – The Night Creeps Slowly
Ryan Smith may not be a name you know, but he is composer from Parker, Colorado who wrote a very Halloween-appropriate piece that the Parker Symphony played for its world premiere. A Chaparral High School graduate in 2008, he has written, recorded, and produced under the name M.I.X.
6. Chopin – “Funeral March” from his Piano Sonata No. 2
What Halloween music list would be complete without the famous Funeral March from Chopin. Although many may not know it, it is actually the 3rd movement in his Piano Sonata No. 2 and quite lovely once you get past the main motif. It has been arranged for a variety of instruments and even full orchestra and has been played at numerous funerals including Chopin’s own burial in October 1849 at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
7. Liszt – Totentanz
“Totentanz” translates to “Dance of the Dead” in English. It joins several other works by Liszt in showing his fascination with death. In fact, it is said he frequented hospitals and asylums and even went down into prison dungeons to see those condemned to die.
8. Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Probably the most famous piece of organ music written, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor was not intended to be creepy, but thanks to its use in numerous films, it has become a cliché to illustrate horror and villainy.
9. Rachmaninoff – Isle of the Dead
Another symphonic poem that depicts a story, this piece was inspired by a reproduction of a painting of the same name that Rachmaninoff saw in Paris. The opening of the piece is either suggestive of oars as they meet the waters on the way to the Isle of the Dead or the waves themselves.
10. Gounod – Funeral March of a Marionette
Ok. One listen to this piece and you’ll instantly recognize it as the theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, it has also a great piece for Halloween because of its subject matter (a funeral) and it’s oddly catchy and creepy melody. The storyline that the piece follows is that a marionette has died in a duel, the funeral procession commences, and then, during the central section, mourners take refreshments before returning to the march.
11. Penderecki – Intermezzo For 24 Strings
Not an overtly Halloween-themed piece, the chromatic layering of instruments has a creepy effect that makes this a great addition to any Halloween playlist. Penderecki is a Polish composer of the 20th and 21st century whose music has sometimes been adapted for films. His String Quartet and Kanon For Orchestra and Tape were featured in the 1973 movie The Exorcist
12. Grieg – “In The Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt
The translation of the title of this piece from Norwegian isn’t quite literally “mountain king”. The “king” in this instance is actually a troll that Peer Gynt invents in a fantasy. The introduction of this movement is, “There is a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes and goblins. Dovregubben sits on his throne, with crown and sceptre, surrounded by his children and relatives. Peer Gynt stands before him. There is a tremendous uproar in the hall.”
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”) was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, wife of Samuel Howe – a scholar in education for the blind. Both Julia and Samuel were active leaders in anti-slavery politics and strong supporters of the Union, so it’s no surprise that the song is heavily associated with the Civil War. In the years since the war, however, it has become a staple in American patriotic music.
While you may find yourself singing it on the 4th of July, you probably don’t know all there is to this inspiring song. Check out these 7 facts about “Battle Hymn of the Republic” below.
It Was A Favorite of Walt Disney Among Others
“Battle Hymn…” was said to be a favorite of Walt Disney’s so much so that it was played at the end of his private funeral in 1966. It was also one of Winston Churchill’s favorite songs and was played at his state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It has been performed at other memorial services, most notably the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral for those lost on 9/11, at the Requiem Mass for Bobby Kennedy, and at Senator John McCain’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.
It Is A Remake…Of A Remake
The story of the song’s creation begins with a visit to a Union army camp near Washington DC. Julia Howe heard a group at the camp begin to sing a popular war song titled “John Brown’s Body” (which was sung to a tune borrowed from the hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us”. One of the other visitors at the camp, Reverend James Freeman Clarke, suggested that Mrs. Howe pen new lyrics to the same tune. She awoke the following morning and in a flash of inspiration, wrote the lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that we sing today.
Its Opening Lines Were The Last Words Spoken By Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in support of sanitation workers in Memphis. He announced, “I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he was assassinated on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel.
Howe Was Paid $5 For The Poem
The Atlantic Monthly published the poem in February 1862 and paid Julia Ward Howe $5 (note that some say it was actually $4). While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it is actually equivalent to $124.97 today. The publisher was also the one who gave the poem its title.
It Made The Hot 100 Charts
In 1960, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recording rose to #13 on the Hot 100 and it even won them a Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus.
It Inspired Numerous Other Works
When you read the lyrics, one of the most obvious inspirations that becomes apparent is the title of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath which came from the line “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It also inspired the title of John Updike’s In The Beauty of the Lilies.
Numerous other songs have been set to the same tune. For example, the University of Georgia’s fight song “Glory Glory to Old Georgia”, the parody song “The Burning of the School”, and a version that Mark Twain wrote to comment on the Philippine-American War titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated”.
Its Publication Was Probably Against Her Husband’s Wishes
Many historians agree that Julia Ward Howe’s writing had been a source of bitterness and strife in her marriage to Samuel Howe. He worked diligently to stop her intellectual aspirations and isolate her from literary outlets. Still, she defied his wishes where she could, even publishing an anonymous book of poems at one point. That enraged him and he began badgering her for divorce and separation – which she declined. In the end, she could not be silenced as “Battle Hymn” lives on as a lasting contribution.
Many of the pieces in our upcoming “Salute” concert are probably familiar – certainly “The Star Spangled Banner” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. But one that may be relatively unknown outside of video game circles is “Baba Yetu”. Once you hear it, though, we think you’ll agree that in addition to being inspirational, it’s also truly unforgettable.
Baba Yetu Meaning and Lyrics
“Baba Yetu” is essentially the Lord’s Prayer sung in Swahili. The title translated means “Our Father”.
The lyrics are as follows:
Baba yetu, yetu uliye Mbinguni yetu, yetu amina! Baba yetu yetu uliye Jina lako e litukuzwe.
Utupe leo chakula chetu Tunachohitaji, utusamehe Makosa yetu, hey! Kama nasi tunavyowasamehe Waliotukosea usitutie Katika majaribu, lakini Utuokoe, na yule, muovu e milele!
Ufalme wako ufike utakalo Lifanyike duniani kama mbinguni. (Amina)
Our Father, who art in Heaven. Amen! Our Father, Hallowed be thy name.
Give us this day our daily bread, Forgive us of our trespasses, As we forgive others Who trespass against us Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one forever.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done On Earth as it is in Heaven. (Amen)
Video Game Origin
Unlike many orchestral and choral pieces that are either classical music or film scores, “Baba Yetu” has a unique story. Composer Christopher Tin was at his five-year Stanford University reunion where he reconnected with his former roommate Soren Johnson. Johnson told Tin that he had been working on the video game Civiliztion III at which time Tin relayed his love of the series.
A few months later, Johnson contacted Tin and told him that he was working on Civilization IV and needed music for the game’s introduction and menu area. Recalling his interest in the series, he asked if Tin wanted to help. Johnson had heard the Stanford Talisman, an a capella group at Stanford, sing traditional African music and wanted something similar. Tin composed “Baba Yetu” in 2005 and recorded it with Stanford Talisman for the game.
Tin re-recorded the piece for his first solo classical crossover album titled Calling All Dawns in 2009, recruiting the talent of the Soweto Gospel Choir for vocals.
Grammy Award Winning
“Baba Yetu” received a lot of critical praise, including from over 20 reviewers from major video game publications like IGN and GameSpy. It was also particularly memorable for fans of Civilization IV because of its combination of an inspirational and majestic theme with African percussion and rhythm.
In 2011, it won a Grammy Award which not only made it the first video game theme nominated, but also the first piece of music composed for a game to win. It also won at the Independent Music Awards and the 2006 Game Audio Network Guild Awards.
Today, the piece is frequently performed at Video Games Live concerts and has even made appearances at venues like Carnegie Hall, The Dubai Fountain, the Kennedy Center, The Hollywood Bowl, and America’s Got Talent.
When it comes to beautiful classical music, there’s a lot to choose from. From slow and melodic to fast and memorable, there’s something out there for everyone. Only a select few pieces, however, rise to the level of being so beautiful they bring tears and touch the soul. If that is what you are searching for, consider our list of top 20 heart-wrenching, moving classical music pieces below.
1. Elgar – “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations
“Nimrod” is truly one of the all-time heart-wrenching pieces with its fluctuating dynamics and unresolved tension. It is laden with anticipation from the start with a classic crescendo into the second entrance of the main theme. It’s no wonder it is used at British funerals, memorial services, and on Remembrance Sunday. You can hear the Parker Symphony perform it on October 26, 2018 at our Salute concert
2. Tchaikovsky – “Pas de Deux” from The Nutcracker
The “Pas de Deux” is a visually stunning part of the ballet The Nutcracker. And it is no surprise that the beauty of the two solo dancers is complemented by a powerful and expressive melody. It begins with a soulful cello melody and builds from there.
3. Rachmaninov – “18th Variation” from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Fans of the movie “Somewhere in Time” and those who have seen “Groundhog Day” will instantly recognize this lyrical melody. The variations overall, including the 18th, have become more famous than the Paganini tune they are based on.
4. Dvořák – “Largo” from the New World Symphony
The second movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony (the Largo) has often been described as surreal and sublime. While the melody is seemingly simple, it evokes feelings of reminiscence like no other piece. It is, at times, nostalgic with a lamenting, longing tone.
5. Puccini – “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi
With a title that translates to “Oh my dear daddy”, you can only imagine that this is a song filled with emotion. “O Mio Babbino Caro” is a soprano aria from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi sung at the point when tensions are so high that they threaten to separate the singer, Lauretta, and the boy she loves, Rinuccio, forever.
6. Barber – Adagio for Strings
Adagio for Strings is arguably Samuel Barber’s best known work. It was arranged for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet Op 11. It has been written that it is “full of pathos and cathartic passion” that “rarely leaves a dry eye”. It has been played at funerals and memorials and in 2004 was voted the “saddest classical” work ever by the BBC’s Today program.
7. Zimmer – Chevaliers de Sangreal
Hans Zimmer’s “Chevaliers De Sangreal” is arguably not classical, but a film score. Still, it is perfect for this list. The gradual crescendo that builds anticipation is the backdrop for the end of The Da Vinci Code when Robert Langdon realizes the truth about Mary Magdalene’s tomb. Sorry…no spoilers here. The point at which the music hits its climax is the moment Langdon reaches the spot and kneels.
8. Godard – “Berceuse” from Jocelyn
Jocelyn may not be among the most recognized operas, but the “Berceuse” from it remains the most enduring of Godard’s compositions. It was originally sung by a tenor, but it has been recorded by other instruments including Pablo Casals on cello.
9. Beethoven – 2nd Movement from “Sonata Pathétique”
The “Adagio cantabile” from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (Pathétique) was used as the theme music for the radio program Adventures in Good Music from 1970 to 2007. The sonata overall is among Beethoven’s most popular piano works.
10. Williams – Schindler’s List
The theme to an intensely emotional movie like Schindler’s List will, of course, also evoke tears and heart-wrenching feelings. The original score and recording features violinist Itzhak Perlman and won numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
11. Handel – “Largo” from Xerxes
With such a beautiful aria, it’s interesting that Handel’s opera Xerxes was a failure. The area was resurrected 100 years later and is typically performed at solemn occasions. Although it was originally sung, it has been arranged for all sorts of instruments and voices.
12. Debussy – “Clair de Lune” from Suite Bergamasque
One of Debussy’s most recognizable works, “Clair de Lune” is actually the third movement of his Suite bergamasque written for piano. It has since been arranged for orchestra and numerous instruments and is prominently featured in both the movie Ocean’s 11 and as background music for the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.
13. Elgar – 1st Movement from his Cello Concerto in E minor
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is his last notable work and a cornerstone of solo repertoire for any serious cellist. The first movement is filled with passion and it is hard to find a more expressive and passionate recording than that of Jacqueline du Pré.
14. Puccini – “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot
One of the best-known tenor arias in all of opera, Nessun Dorma was popularized worldwide by Luciano Pavarotti who performed it for the 1990 World Cup, captivating a global audience. It was played at his funeral in 2013.
15. Mozart – “Lacrimosa” from his Requiem in D minor
Mozart’s Requiem is full of emotional and intense moments especially in places like the “Dies irae” and the “Lacrimosa”. Sadly, the “Lacrimosa” was incomplete due to Mozart’s death and was finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
16. Gounod/Mantovani – Nazareth
Originally composed by Gounod for voice as “Jesus de Nazareth”, it was recorded by Mantovani & His Orchestra for Christmas albums and titled “Nazareth”.
17. Sartori/Quarantotto – Con te partirò (Time To Say Goodbye)
This Italian song was originally performed in 1995 by Andrea Bocelli at the Sanremo Festival. This second version was released in 1996 sung partly in English with Sarah Brightman.
18. Saint-Saëns – “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals
Lushly romantic, “The Swan” is another staple in cello repertoire. The cello solo is said to represent a swan gliding elegantly over the water while the piano is the swan’s feet beneath the surface.
19. Massenet – “Meditation” from Thaïs
The “Meditation” is played during a time of reflection in Act II of the opera Thaïs. It is considered one of the great encore pieces and has been performed by all the great violin soloists.
20. Mahler – 4th Movement from Symphony No. 9
Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was his last symphony. He died without ever hearing it performed. The final movement is often interpreted as the composer’s farewell to the world since it was composed after the diagnosis of his fatal heart disease.
Honorable Mentions (in case you want to check out more):
Ah, Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It’s a staple at weddings. It’s almost always found on “relaxing classical music” playlists. It can even be heard during the holidays both in its original form and as incorporated into Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Canon.
It is perhaps one of the most famous baroque pieces that almost anyone – classical music fan or not – can hum without help. And yet, it is also one of the most hated by musicians themselves, particularly cellists. But why?
That Terrible Bass Line
Pachelbel’s Canon, as it is commonly known, is one part of his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo. In simple terms, a canon is similar to a round – like Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Typically, one instrument or voice starts the melody and other parts then join in. Unlike a round, however, the parts in a canon don’t have to be exactly identical.
Pachelbel uses the techniques of the canon with 3 voices engaged in the “round”. He adds a basso continuo (bass line) which is independent – making the piece more of a chaconne than a canon. This bass line is the cello part. The same 8 notes that repeat throughout the entire piece with no variation. This is why cellists cannot stand playing this piece. As everyone else in the room enjoys the lovely sounds of the canon, the variations of the melody that travel through the violins and viola, the cello is stuck playing the same two-bar line – one that is so simple it can be played by beginning students. Musically speaking, this is definitely not challenging or fun for cellists.
…or is it? The Piano Guys have a wonderful rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon that plays on this common cellist complaint and takes the piece to new heights.
Incidentally, I describe the bass line as the cello part, but it can be played by other instruments (as is the case in wind ensembles).
It’s not just the bass line that is played over and over again. The entire piece itself seems to be overplayed. Weddings, parties, relaxing CDs, holidays, etc. It’s everywhere.
In addition to its original form, the piece’s chord progression can be heard in numerous other places including in popular music. Green Day’s Basket Case, Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger, and Vitamin C’s Graduation are all based on the same chords. Some songs even incorporate samples of the original, as is the case in Coolio’s C U When You Get There.
One could argue that that’s evidence of the simple genius of the piece. Comedian Rob Paravonian would disagree with that.
There Are Many, Many Better Pieces
Perhaps one of the most common reasons musicians give for why they dislike (or even hate) Pachelbel’s Canon is because there is plenty of “better” classical music out there to choose from. One Google search for “relaxing classical music” or “classical wedding music” will return numerous options that are NOT the famous canon. Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and Elgar’s Salut d’Amour just to name a few.
Musically, Pachelbel’s Canon also doesn’t offer much. For those who were taught to listen closely to minute details in music, the piece falls far short from anything written by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. It’s unsophisticated and highly redundant.
But its simplicity is effective. The unvarying melody at the root of the composition and the repeating basso continuo line are designed to sustain a mood. Unlike other pieces that use a chord structure that gives the music forward momentum (dynamic harmony or chord progression), Canon in D uses a chord structure that does not vary much (static harmony). So unlike music that creates moments of tension and relaxation to tell a story, the canon’s repeating chords serve to prolong the same calm feeling throughout the entire piece.
When It’s Played Badly, It’s Awful
Because the piece is so well-known, mistakes and intonation issues stick out like a sore thumb. One lazy performer – including the musician falling asleep while playing the bass line – can ruin the entire piece.
So while the piece may be the bane of your existence for any of the reasons mentioned above, if you have to play Pachelbel’s Canon, be sure to play it well and in-tune or everyone will notice.
Image from http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/shakespearelang/2017/06/13/music-in-shakespeare/
It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare’s influence spread well beyond his plays and far beyond idyllic Stratford-upon-Avon. He gave us new words like “fashionable” and “softhearted”. He inspired figures like Freud, Dickens, and George Washington, to name a few. His reach can even be seen as far as the planet Uranus – 25 of its 27 moons are named for Shakespearean characters. A bit closer to home, however, are the numerous orchestral and vocal works that were written about Shakespearean storylines and characters. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest, here is a rundown of the best classical music inspired by Shakespeare.
Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mendelssohn wrote music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream on two separate occasions. He first wrote a concert overture in 1826 and then in 1842 he incorporated the overture into incidental music he wrote for a production. The exclusively instrumental movements, the Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, and Wedding March, are typically played as a suite in both concerts and recordings and they remain among the most famous of all Shakespearean classical music. In fact, the Wedding March is the traditional music you hear when the just married couple exits the ceremony.
Gade – Hamlet Overture
Like Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky wrote both an overture and incidental music about Hamlet. Liszt also wrote a symphonic poem titled Hamlet. But it is Danish composer Niel Gade’s Hamlet Overture that made our list because of its emotionally dramatic nature that is truly evocative of Shakespeare’s play. A symphonic poem of sorts, it begins with a funereal march that foreshadows tragedy followed by an animated, angry theme in a minor key that eventually leads to a pulsating theme in a major key (perhaps a Hamlet and Ophelia love theme). The piece then returns to the funereal march in a unified conclusion. The Parker Symphony will be performing Gade’s Hamlet Overture on May 11!
Dvořák – Othello Overture
Critics sometimes note that Dvořák’s Othello Overture has a “New World Symphony” quality to it, but for anyone who has heard his In Nature’s Realm Overture, the similarities in some of the melodies are indisputable – and with good reason. The work is the third part of a trilogy called “Nature, Life, and Love”. The other two overtures are In Nature’s Realm and the Carnival Overture. Othello is by far the most emotional of the three works with sweet moments woven in between intense and even ominous parts. Dvořák called it “the most substantial and the most subtle, touching emotions not engaged by its more outgoing companion works.”
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet
You’ve no doubt heard parts of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in popular culture – most recently “The Dance of the Knights” as ominous music in The Apprentice. But there’s more to this ballet and its music than just that one melody. Love, quarrels, fights, and the balcony love scene all offer amazing musical moments. Note: Tchaikovsky also wrote a Romeo & Juliet overture worth listening to.
Verdi – Macbeth
Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that Verdi adapted for the operatic stage (he also wrote Otello, Falstaff, and Re Lear). It is also one of only a handful of Shakespeare-inspired operas that have made their place in standard repertory. When he set out to write, Verdi wanted to make Macbeth one of his best scores. He was truly inspired by Shakespeare’s play calling it “one of mankind’s greatest creations.”
Schumann – Julius Caesar Overture
It was not only inspired by Shakespeare’s play, but Schumann’s Julius Caesar was also heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Egmont overture. It shares the key of F minor with Beethoven’s work as well as the sonata form and a code in a major key. A known musical cryptogram enthusiast, it has been suggested that there is a cipher for “C-A-E-S-A-R” in this work’s opening chords.
Schubert – An Sylvia
From the title, it’s difficult to see how this fits the Shakespeare music theme. However, An Sylvia was inspired by a scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a German lied (an art song in which a German poem is set to music). The text is a German translation of the poem, “Who is Sylvia” from Act 4, Scene 2 of the play. Schubert wrote this at the height of his career and while it seems simple, it also has an elegant and witty quality that is perfectly aligned with the tone of the play.
Walton – Suite from Henry V
Before the times of John Williams were numerous film score composers you may not know. And like some of today’s compositions, some of this film music can truly stand on its own. William Walton’s music for the 1944 film Henry V can be counted in this category. He manages to achieve dramatic effect that delivers a top-notch musical adventure. The music was arranged into a suite and recorded in 1963.
Korngold – Much Ado About Nothing
Korngold is another name known for his film scores (although he also wrote an amazing violin concerto). In 1918, prior to his time as a film composer, he was asked to write incidental music in Vienna for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The result was music with imaginative melodies, rich tones, and lush harmonies that help it stand on its own as an independent work.
Sibelius – The Tempest (Stormen)
The Tempest is considered by many to be among Sibelius’ greatest achievements. Written as incidental music to the play, Sibelius strove to represent individual characters through specific instrumentation. Critics note that his use of harps and percussion to represent the ambiguity of Prospero is a truly inventive choice. This along with another work titled Tapiola were the last of Sibelius’ works. After that he spent his remaining 32 years writing almost nothing else.
This May, DU Lamont School of Music’s Heidi Leathwood will join the Parker Symphony in performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It’s one of the composer’s most popular works and one of the most loved and performed of all piano concerti. Whether you recognize the opening notes or have heard the whole thing numerous times, chances are you don’t know all there is to this to this stunning piece. Here are 7 interesting facts about the Grieg Piano Concerto.
It was Grieg’s only completed concerto. When he was just 25, Grieg wanted to make his mark on the world. This was his first work to employ an orchestra and it was an instant success. Many expected the composer to write a second, but one never came. He began work on a second concerto in B minor, but he never completed it. Several pianists have recorded the sketches and in 1997 the Oslo Grieg Society held a competition in which one contestant elaborated a full concerto from the sketches. Grieg also started work on a violin concerto that also was not completed.
It is often compared to Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Not only did Grieg and Schumann each write only one piano concerto, they both wrote theirs in A minor. Both works also begin on a similar descending flourish on the piano. Schumann wrote his first and Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform it about 10 years before writing his own. It is said that Grieg was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style having been taught piano by Schumann’s friend.
Grieg did not perform it at the premiere. Some sources say that Grieg was the intended soloist but he was unable to attend the premiere due to previous commitments in Christiania (now Oslo). Anton Rubinstein, however, was in attendance and he even provided his own piano for the occasion. Danish composer Niels Gade (who wrote the Hamlet Overture which the PSO is also performing in May) was also in the audience.
It was the first piano concerto ever recorded. German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus recognized the importance of the gramophone. His 1909 recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto was not only the first recording of that work, but the first time any concerto had been recorded. Due to the technology of the time, however, it was a heavily abridged performance that lasted only 6 minutes.
A pianist died while performing it. On April 2, 1951, pianist Simon Barere collapse on stage while playing the first few bars of the Grieg Piano Concerto. The performance was with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. Unfortunately he died backstage shortly after collapsing.
Grieg revised the work at least 7 times. Most of the updates were subtle, but they add up to over 300 differences from the original orchestration. The final version was completed only a few weeks before Grieg’s death and this is the version we know today.
The concerto contains Norwegian folk music influences. This isn’t surprising since Edvard Grieg was from Norway and like other composers including Dvorak and Sibelius, he sought to pay tribute to his homeland in much of his music. The opening flourish of the concerto is a motif typical in Norwegian folk music while the last movement contains imitations of the Norwegian folk fiddle and halling (a Norwegian dance).
Don’t miss Heidi Leathwood’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor along with other Scandinavian pieces at the Parker Symphony Orchestra concert on May 11 at PACE.Tickets are on sale now.
Since the Karelia Suite was composed by Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer, you can imagine he infused a lot of his homeland into the piece. What you may not know, however, is that the piece is more than just inspired by Finland – it is entirely all about Finland. From the title, which refers to a region made up by southeast Finland and parts of Russia, to the premiere in Vyborg, this work captures the spirit of Sibelius’ country and was not only popular during his time, but remains one of his most performed works today.
The Karelia Suite is actually music that was commissioned by students from the Helsinki University in Vyborg for a historical tableau – a set of scenes from the history of Karelia. The original work was called Karelia Music and was an intensely patriotic work, incorporating Finland’s main folk legends from the Kalevala (a 19th century work of epic poetry based on Finnish mythology). It consisted of an overture, 8 tableau movements, and two intermezzo movements. Sibelius created the suite we know today using 3 of the movements.
The three movements of the Karelia Suite are:
Intermezzo: Sibelius borrowed the brass theme from the middle of the 3rd tableau to create this lively movement. It is a jaunty movement intended to depict the procession of Karelian laborers paying taxes to Duke Narimont of Lithuania.
Ballade: This was based on tableau 4 of the original music. It tells the story of 15th century Swedish king, Karl Knutsson, feeling reminiscent while listening to his bard singing in the castle.
Alla Marcia: This exhilarating march is very similar to the last half of the 5th tableau in the original music. The original tableau, however, depicted a violent city siege. This movement in the suite, however, is light, sunny, and jolly.
When the original Karelia Music premiered in 1893, it was not performed in the best of circumstances. The audience, made up of students from the university, was so loud that many could not hear the music at all. Sibelius himself remarked, “You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.”
Finnish author Ernst Lampén, who was in the audience, recalled:
The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm. I was at the opposite end of the hall and could not distinguish a single note. The audience did not have the patience to listen and was hardly aware of the music. The orchestra was actually there, behind the pillars. I thrust my way through the crowd and managed to reach the orchestra after a good deal of effort. There were a few listeners. Just a handful. I arrived just when they were playing the march. What a extraordinarily charming and varied melody! What a springy rhythm!
Despite this initial performance, Sibelius went on to conduct a very popular concert that included the Overture plus the three movements that would become the Karelia Suite and thanks to its wonderful reception, the composer decided to sell the pieces for printing. Many of the original tableaus may have been lost to fire (Sibelius burned many of his manuscripts in 1945), but the Karelia Suite survived.
Today, critics note that this suite combines rustic melodies with grand, noble moments to reflect both the rough, simple life and the deep patriotism of the Karelian people. Listening to the various movements (particularly the opening of the Intermezzo and the Alla Marcia), one cannot help but think of the beautiful wilderness, the vast tundras, and the proud people of Finland.