We’ve all heard it. The jokes about classical music putting people to sleep. Sure, some pieces are great for studying, meditation, weddings, and solemn events, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this genre. If all classical music were soft, quiet, and relaxing, orchestra life would be pretty boring especially for the percussion and brass sections. Forte would be a rare dynamic. Fortissimo an impossibility. And audiences would be very hard to come by – unless, of course, they were trying to catch some zzz’s.
So why do people say that about classical music? Maybe it’s because they just haven’t heard the more rousing pieces. Maybe they only remember the softer side of classical because that’s all they hear at weddings. Regardless of the reason, here’s a list of badass classical music that shatters the stereotype.
Orff – Carmina Burana / “O Fortuna”
Holst – The Planets, Mars
Verdi – Requiem “Dies Irae”
Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries
Vivaldi – The Four Seasons: Summer Mvt. 3 Presto
Bizet – Carmen Overture / Les Toreadors
Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
Verdi – Il Trovatore / “Anvil Chorus”
Khachaturian – Sabre Dance
Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra, Prelude
Honorable Mentions (in case you want to check out more):
Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture
Shostakovich – Symphony No 5, Mvt 4
Bruckner – Symphony No 1, Mvt 3
Grieg – In The Hall Of The Mountain King
Dvorak – Symphony No 9, Mvt 4
Mozart – Requiem in D minor, Dies Irae
Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suite No 2, Mvt 4 (Farandole)
Vltava, better known by its German name, Die Moldau (or The Moldau), is a symphonic poem that is patriotic in every sense of the word. It is one of six movements of a larger work called Má vlast which means “My Homeland” or “My Country”. In it, Czech composer Smetana combined nationalistic melodies with musical depictions of the Bohemian countryside, history, and legends. When performed, you can hear the land come alive as the music paints the scene of a proud and culturally-rich region of Europe.
The Moldau specifically was intended to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers – the Vltava river. The “Moldau” name comes from the German name for the source of the river in the Bohemian mountains. In Smetana’s own words:
The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.
The piece begins with the flutes playing a flowing tune reminiscent of two rippling springs. Violin pizzicato evokes raindrops. Soon, clarinets begin to play and continue the theme. Then one of Smetana’s most famous melodies emerges. It is an adaptation of a piece called La Mantovana and is arguably one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of the entire work. In fact, it has inspired other pieces, most notably the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Later on, a horn melody representing jubilant hunters and a polka rhythm that depicts a wedding scene can be heard before the famous melody returns. The piece ends with a regal hymn that fades away until the final two loud notes.
The Moldau was written in the 1870’s, a time when Bohemians had a renewed interest in freedom from German culture. They embraced it and the rest of Má vlast as a sort of patriotic symphonic national anthem. Research suggests this was Smetana’s intent as well. Today, it has achieved the most success of all of the six movements.
When thinking of nature-inspired classical music, pieces inspired by flowers, rivers, trees, birds, seasons, and beautiful scenery definitely fit the bill. You may think of everything from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. But how about a piece about a cave?
Yes, there is at least one classical piece about a cave and it’s a mysterious, dramatic, and beautifully melodic work. It’s everything you’d expect from a piece about a stunning yet lonely cave surrounded by the ocean. It’s Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and you can hear it performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra live on May 5.
Learn more about this fascinating overture. Here are 9 interesting facts you should know about The Hebrides.
1. It has had several titles. When Mendelssohn completed the work in 1830, it was originally titled Die einsame Insel or The Lonely Island. He revised the score 2 years later and, at that time, renamed the work Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). It was published in 1833 with the “Hebrides” title on various orchestral parts and Fingal’s Cave on the score.
2. It was inspired by a trip to the real cave. Mendelssohn visited England in 1829 and after touring the country, proceeded to Scotland. He and his friend, Karl Klingemann, traveled to the Hebrides Island off the west coast of Scotland and later to Fingal’s Cave, a real cave on the island of Staffa. The sea cave is known for its natural acoustics which project the rumbling of the waves inside for miles. Mendelssohn tried to capture the phenomenon in his overture. The cave is also known for its hexagonal basalt columns similar to those you can find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
3. It is not a traditional overture. Many overtures serve as the opening to an opera or ballet, but The Hebrides represents a new type of overture called the “concert overture”, intended to stand as a complete work. Also, unlike some pieces, it does not tell a story, but rather depicts a mood and “sets a scene”. That also makes it an early example of a musical tone poem.
4. Mendelssohn was seasick on his trip to Fingal’s Cave. The composer and his friend took a skiff to Staffa to view the cave and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring formation. Mendelssohn was terribly seasick during the trip, but enjoyed it nonetheless. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that he got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”
5. The overture didn’t come easily. Mendelssohn apparently came up with the opening phrase of the overture while on his tour of Scotland. He sent it home on a postcard with a note to his sister Fanny that read, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” Unfortunately, despite this stroke of genius, he completed at least 2 versions of the piece and wrote to his sister that he was still wrestling with it in 1832 because it did not savor enough of “oil and seagulls and dead fish”.
6. It was dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was the Crown Prince of Prussia at the time and Mendelssohn’s patron.
7. The final autograph manuscript still exists. It is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Its 34 pages are full of deletions and revisions in a fine calligraphy that was characteristic of Mendelssohn.
8. It consists of two distinct themes. The opening notes state the theme Mendelssohn conceived while visiting the cave and is played by violas, cellos, and bassoons. It sets an initial scene of haunting solitude until the violins take over and the lower voices begin a pattern of sixteenth notes that represent the ebb and flow of the sea. The second theme is a soaring melody meant to convey the drama of the scene. It was once called “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote” by musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey. There are also recognizable crescendos and crashes that represent the often stormy tides of the area.
9. A theory claims that first draft was completed on a very important cave-related date. Scottish writer Iain Thornber pointed out that the initial draft of The Hebrides was completed on the only day of the year the cave is illuminated by the sun. The cave is only fully illuminated when the sun lies 5.6 degrees above the horizon which is generally on or about December 16. Mendelssohn completed the draft on December 16, 1830. Either this was on purpose or it’s a big coincidence.
Duke Ellington. The name immediately brings to mind jazz. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, his legacy as an accomplished pianist and bandleader lives on today. But do you know he was also a composer of symphonic music? In fact, it was his inventive use of the orchestra that many point to as a reason that jazz was elevated to an art form on par with more traditional music genres.
Among his symphonic works are pieces like Black, Brown, and Beige Suite, Harlem, For Jazz Band and Orchestra, New World a-Comin’, and Les Trois Rois Noirs or, in English, Three Black Kings. This last piece was actually Ellington’s final work, composed at the time of his death in 1974. While laying in his hospital bed, he reportedly gave his son, Mercer, final instructions on how to complete the work. However, how much detail he gave is not clear. Mercer once lamented, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy, because he left me no clues.”
Mercer Ellington completed the work and the result is a lush and alluring piece infused with African motifs, a warm down-home feeling, and the unmistakable jazz sound that made Duke Ellington famous. The New York Times noted about the work’s premiere, “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom…moves the spectator” and The Daily News hailed the work as “An intensely moving vision…”.
The title of the work refers to the 3 movements, each depicting a different “king”: Balthazar the black king of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington’s good friend Dr. Martin Luther King. Mercer Ellington explained that his father, “intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King and he decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. Primitivity, the opening movement, represents [Balthazar,] the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that, then the dirge for Dr. King. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings Ellington saw in the Cathedral del Mar in Barcelona.”
You may have heard of Scott Joplin and you may associate him with ragtime pieces such as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”, but did you know that he wrote two operas? One is titled “A Guest of Honor”. The other, “Treemonisha”, has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”. Although sometimes referred to as the “ragtime opera”, this is a misnomer because the rag style is used only sparingly. Instead, the score and libretto follow the European opera form with conventional arias, ensembles, and choruses.
Treemonisha is the name of the opera’s main character – a heroine who is kidnapped by a band of magicians. She eventually leads her community against the conjurers who prey on their superstition, teaching them the value of education and the liability of ignorance. It is said that the main character may have been inspired by Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who herself was educated, well-read, and an activist for women and African-American rights.
While the story in the opera is entertaining and the music enchanting, the story behind the work and its performance is truly fascinating. It was completed in 1910. However, Joplin had to pay for a piano-vocal score to be published the following year. He sent a copy to the American Musician and Art Journal which wrote a glowing, full-page review of the work calling it, “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style)”.
Unfortunately, the endorsement wasn’t enough. The opera was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime. Its only performance was a concert read-through in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where Joplin played the piano. This was also paid for by Joplin.
“Treemonisha” was subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970 and performed for an entirely new generation. Excerpts were performed in 1971 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but it was the world premiere in 1972 that really brought this amazing work back into the spotlight. A joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was directed by the famous African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. It was well received by critics and audiences alike.
Since then, it has been performed by the Houston Grand Opera, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and throughout Europe including several times in Germany. You can hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform the Overture from “Treemonisha” on February 25, 2017 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO. Discover this beautiful and once-forgotten piece for yourself next month.
Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day! In honor of the day, we’ve compiled a list of classical music related to the pirate life. From famous soundtracks to swashbuckling operas to rousing overtures, we’ve got your definitive playlist for the day.
1. Gilbert & Sullivan – The Pirates of Penzance
Probably the best known on our list is the fifth Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration. This comic opera brought us the much-parodied “Major General’s Song“. However, “I am a Pirate King” is a more appropriate selection for today. Watch this rousing pirate selection below.
2. Leroy Anderson – Pirate Dance
A light and exuberant piece, Anderson’s “Pirate Dance” has melodies you can certainly associate with pirate life. In fact, at one point, you can almost imagine it leading into the Disney “A Pirate’s Life For Me”, but it never quite gets there. Still, it’s a nice lighthearted selection for International Talk Like A Pirate Day.
3. Vincenzo Bellini – Il Pirata
Another opera on our list, Bellini’s “The Pirate” is based on a three-act melodrama called “Bertram, or The Pirate”. It was an immediate success upon its premiere in October 1827. Recent notable recordings have included such famous names as Maria Callas and Renée Fleming in the cast. Hear the opening below.
4. Walter Leigh – Jolly Roger
A rousing overture for sure, this lively piece will have you thinking adventure in no time. Leigh was an English composer in the early 20th century. Like “Pirates of Penzance”, “Jolly Roger” was a comic opera. Hear the overture below.
5. Klaus Badelt – Pirates of the Caribbean
You have to be marooned on an island not to know (or guess) that the music from the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” has a distinctly swashbuckling sound. Hear it performed live below.
6. Erich Wolfgang Korngold – The Sea Hawk
Another piece written for the movies, Korngold’s soundtrack for “The Sea Hawk” is an exciting and romantic score you wouldn’t guess was composed in the 1940’s. The movie itself starred Errol Flynn as an English privateer who defends his nation against the Spanish Armada. Hear the overture from the film score below.
7. John Williams – Hook
To round out the list, we couldn’t help but include John Williams’ Hook soundtrack. Of course a score for a film about Peter Pan and Captain Hook would have a distinctly adventurous sound. Watch the “Flight to Neverland” from Hook conducted by the composer himself.
Finlandia, one of Sibelius’ most famous compositions, is often referred to as a tone poem. A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music with only one movement that evokes a poem, story, painting, or other non-musical source. In the case of Finlandia, it was one of seven pieces that served as an accompaniment to a tableau that depicted episodes from Finnish history. It premiered July 2, 1900 in Helsinki.
But it was much more than just a historical tribute. It was secretly a protest against censorship from the Russian Empire. Prior to 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire. Most of the piece features rousing music that is meant to evoke the national struggle of the Finnish people. After that, a serene melody can be heard. Named the Finlandia Hymn, this section is Sibelius’ own creation that was arranged later for solo performance. The hymn has become one of Finland’s most important national songs with words written for is in 1941.
To avoid Russian censorship while protesting it, Finlandia was performed under alternative names. Some of these include Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March.
Finlandia can be heard prominently in the film score for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
Type “classical music to” or “classical music for” into Google and you’ll see that many people already know that classical music is great for studying, falling asleep, and listening to at work. However, recent studies conducted in several countries also reveal that it is the best music genre to listen to if you want to fight various health conditions and promote mental and physical well-being. Check out these 6 surprising benefits of listening to classical music.
It can lower your blood pressure: A study out of the University of San Diego had participants perform a challenging 3 minute arithmetic task. Afterwards, they were randomly assigned to listen to one of several styles of music (classical, pop or jazz) or silence. The group that listened to classical music had significant lower post-task blood pressure levels than not only the group who listened to nothing, but also the other music genres.
Classical music can help manage pain: Music therapy has been around since the 1800s, but recent studies show that the varied pitch, melody, and rhythm in classical music can stimulate responses that relieve pain, including emotional pain. In fact, some post-anesthesia units play classical music to improve comfort and reduce pain. The music helps the person focus on the sounds rather than the physical pain. A study out of the Journal for Advanced Nursing also showed music can relieve chronic pain.
It can lead to enhanced mental alertness and memory: A study from Northumbria University asked participants to complete a series of tasks while listening to either music or silence. The group who listened to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (particularly “Spring”) were able to respond to their tasks faster and more accurately than the group who completed tasks in silence.
Classical music fans are more creative and at ease with themselves: An Edinburgh University study looked at over 36,000 music fans around the world. They found that classical music fans (and heavy metal listeners) were more creative and more at ease with themselves than fans of other music genres.
It may improve sleep quality: A Dutch study concluded that classical music, particularly harp, piano, and orchestral music, can moderately improve relaxation and sleep quality in adults. A Hungarian team also showed that listening to 45 minutes of classical music before bed helped students between 19 and 28, who struggled with sleep issues, fall asleep.
It enhances communication: A study from Southern Methodist University showed that people were more comfortable disclosing personal experiences when listening to classical music in the background. They concluded that the music promoted cognitive expression and an overall relaxed state of mind.
Want to experience the benefits of classical music yourself, but are not sure where to start? Check out these very listenable pieces below:
With a career that has spanned over five decades, it is not surprising that John Williams scored at least one Western. What is interesting, however, is that despite being a prolific film composer with numerous notable works in his portfolio, he has scored less than five Westerns in total! One might wonder why when you hear his robust and brassy soundtrack for the 1972 movie The Cowboys.
The Cowboys starred John Wayne as an aging Montana cattle rancher who is forced to hire youngsters, who he eventually takes under his wing, to drive his herd to South Dakota. It’s a coming-of-age story that was met with mixed reviews, although it did win the Best Theatrical Motion Picture “Bronze Wrangler” award from the Western Heritage Awards. Like many old Westerns, The Cowboys also has Colorado ties. Several of its filming locations include Castle Rock, Durango, Pagosa Springs, and the Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Railway in Canon City.
The main theme can be heard frequently throughout the film with several variations. It is a delightfully rousing theme that instantly conjures up images of galloping horses, sweeping landscapes, and all things…well…cowboy, of course. It is a distinctly Copland-esque piece that is highly-infectious and grand – everything you’d expect from a real Western saga.
The first day of spring is right around the corner, although we’ve been experiencing sunny days and warmer temperatures for a couple of weeks now. Of course, Colorado weather can always take a turn (we even have snow in the forecast), but talk of all things “spring” is here to stay for a while. That got me thinking about classical music inspired by the season. From “La primavera” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, there’s a long list of compositions about and appropriate for this time of year. Here are just a few for your playlist:
“Spring” from The Four Seasons (Vivaldi):The Four Seasons, as the name suggests, is actually four violin concerti. Vivaldi published them along with poems that describe what imagery the music was intended to evoke. For example, the first movement asks the audience to picture that “Spring has come and joyfully the birds greet it with happy song, and the brooks, while the streams flow along with gentle murmur as the zephyrs blow.” Interestingly, the second movement features a barking dog represented by the viola section. Hear it now on YouTube
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (Delius): This is a great example of a tone poem – an orchestral work intended to inspire listeners to imagine scenes or experience moods often from the content of a poem, story, novel, or painting. English composer Delius wrote this as part of Two Pieces for Small Orchestra. The other piece is titled Summer Night on the River, but often these pieces are played separately. Note the cuckoo calls throughout the first theme and again at the end. Listen now here.
“Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt (Grieg): The melody of Morning Mood is by far more well-known than its title or the work from which it came. In fact, most people think of images of Scandinavia where Grieg is from instead of the intended setting which is a Moroccan desert. The piece was written as incidental music to a Henrik Ibsen play and depicts the rising sun at dawn. Listen to it here.
Appalachian Spring (Copland): Originally written as a score for a Martha Graham ballet, today it is celebrated for its tender opening notes and its distinct Americanism thanks to the incorporation of the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”. Copland wrote the initial piece for 13 instruments but later rescored the work for full orchestra. The word “spring” in this case refers to a water source. The Hart Crane poem from which the title came literally addresses a water spring. However, the poem is figuratively about a journey to meet springtime and the ballet storyline tells of a spring celebration of American pioneers in the 19th century. Listen now on YouTube.
Vårsång (Spring Song) (Sibelius): Another tone poem, Sibelius’ Spring Song was originally composed as an orchestral improvisation for a concert in 1894. It was described as a piece full of “fresh, characterful melodies”. A year later, he reworked the piece, shortening and restructuring it and, at that time, he appended the subtitle “The Sadness of Spring”. The piece, however, can be described as more grand than sad, with an optimism not usually seen in his works. Hear it here.