Although Prokofiev's First Symphony, his "Classical" Symphony was composed in 1917, it sounds like a throwback to the type of symphony that Joseph Haydn wrote in the late 1700s. I love the tempo Valery Gergiev establishes on this recording. He has the music sounding playful and liberated.
My students often associate pieces of classical music with old cartoons. Whether I am teaching a lesson about Rossini, Liszt, or Wagner, a student will invariably mention Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Elmer Fudd. I love those old cartoons, but if I took things too seriously, I might take exception to how the beauty and originality of some of the world's greatest music has been lost in comic images. However, a little satire should never be able to ruin a great piece of music, and I'll therefore refer you to Listverse for the 10 Best Uses of Classical Music in Cartoons. There’s no doubt that each cartoon on the list is a gem, and you can't go wrong with the music.
Five cartoons not placed on the list (most likely due to embarrassing racial stereotypes) come from the "Inki and the Minah Bird" series from Warner Brothers. In each of the five cartoons, a bird strolls across the screen, periodically hopping to the music. And what is the music that accompanies that bird's stroll? It’s the Hebrides Overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn. I'd like to use the rest of this blog not to discuss old cartoons, but instead to honor Mendelssohn by discussing the Hebrides Overture.
Mendelssohn was a German composer who visited Scotland when he was twenty years old. He was so charmed by what he saw on his trip that he was inspired to compose two pieces that are now recognized as musical masterworks: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (the "Scottish” Symphony) and the Hebrides Overture. You might want to explore the Scottish Symphony on your own. However, if you'd like to know something about the Hebrides, just keep reading.
The Hebrides archipelago is a group of islands off the western coast of Scotland. Staffa is one of those islands, its name coming from an old Norse word for column or staff. The island is less than a mile wide and contains a series of basalt columns that surround a cave on the southeastern corner of the island. The cave is called Fingal’s Cave and is named for a mythical hero who took refuge on the island.
Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture — also known as The Lonely Island, The Isle of Fingal, or Fingal’s Cave — is piece of program music that doesn’t tell a story about the island and its cave as much as it creates a mood. When listening to the music you should hear the murmuring of the waves, as well as the water crashing on the rocks as it ebbs back and forth. You should also sense the loneliness and the beauty of the cave. The cave has been called “the cave of music,” and the main theme for the piece came to Mendelssohn as he sat in a boat looking at the cave and listening to the water hit its walls. When asked about the story for the Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn said, “It cannot be told, only played.”
I have embedded two videos below. One shows Fingal's Cave and the other shows the Beethoven Academy Orchestra performing the Hebrides Overture. Follow the outline I have provided while listening to the orchestra and think about the majesty of the cave on Staffa Island. Listen for the constant ebb and flow of the water that leads to a climax, as if a storm had hit the island. Rest assured that all ends well with Mendelssohn providing a calm acceptance of nature’s majesty. Much more interesting than a hopping bird, I'd say.
A look at Staffa Island and Fingal’s Cave
Mendelssohn, Hebrides Overture (1829) Michael Dworzynski conducting the Beethoven Academy Orchestra
0:00 — Theme 1
A theme repeated over and over to recreate the murmuring of the waves at the mouth of the cave. Note how the theme is often repeated at a lower dynamic level to represent the echo from within the cave.
1:49 — Theme 2
A theme that rises and falls in pitch and dynamics to represent the waters crashing on rocks and ebbing back to the sea. Some say the theme portrays the inner tranquility of the cave in the midst of the turbulent sea.
2:46 — Closing of the Exposition
Note the change in rhythm (3:00) that represents the fierceness of the wind and sea.
3:34 — The two themes from the exposition are developed and expanded. Note how the themes advance and retreat like water hitting the cave. Listen for the calmness (4:27) preceding the foreboding of a storm (4:52) that eventually hits the island with full fury (6:03).
6:31 — Theme 1
7:21 — Theme 2
8:38 — Coda
A closing to the piece that portrays the turbulence, as well as the majesty, of nature before fading into silence (9:47)
World War I represented a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”
In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.
World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people.
They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.
Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."
Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.
Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.
Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.
2:05 – Viennese Waltz
The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose
2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6
8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …
8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.
9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.
10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …
In 1901, Gustav Mahler held the position of Director of the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly the most prestigious conducting position in Europe. In that same year, Alma Schindler was a young beauty courted by artistic and aristocratic men throughout Vienna. She was also an artist in her own right — a good musician and talented composer. On November 7, Gustav met Alma at a social gathering. He was 41. She was 22.
Soon after they met, Gustav sent Alma a copy of the fourth movement Adagietto from his new symphony in C-sharp minor. Although the Adagietto contained no singing and therefore no lyrics, Alma understood the music contained a message. Gustav had sent Alma a message of love written with musical notation. He used the movement as a song without words to dedicate his love to the young woman he had just met. Alma understood the message and reportedly asked Gustav to pay her a visit. Within days, only one month after they met, they were engaged to be married.
In a larger context, Mahler had composed the Adagietto for the beginning of the third and last part of his Fifth Symphony. The first part of the symphony (movements one and two), provides a musical exploration of the various emotions of how people deal with death. The second part (the third movement) provides dance music as a metaphor for life, an expression of how life goes on. The third part (movements four and five) explores the life-sustaining power of love and a reaffirmation of life.
It was the beginning of the third part — the fourth movement’s expression of the power of love — that Gustav sent to Alma. Although the movement is composed in common duple meter, Mahler scored the music so that groupings of the beat are difficult to hear. It’s not a stretch to say that this can be heard as a metaphor for the timelessness of love.
The fourth movement also provides music that can be heard as an acceptance of death, a feeling that we cannot experience love without ultimately experiencing loss. In the end, Gustav had sent Alma a message of timeless, undying love, a love that would last until death.
Watch the performance I have embedded below and try to hear the Adagietto as I have described it. My interpretation, after all, is not the only way to hear the movement.
The movement is organized in three sections (ABA).
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.
None of that is hyperbole. The power of music—especially classical music—is mystical.
A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the "story" it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.
As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to define what that is. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.
Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski
0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme—the first character in the "story"—begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)
1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.
1:57 – Development: Think of this section as containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.
3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)
3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.
4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)
Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better it will sound.
It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece of music should provide you with time that has been well decorated.
“The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.”
– Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century CE)
Longinus tells us that good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but his message might also apply to music. Great music, however, does not necessarily “persuade” us. Instead, it transports us and provides us with moments of elevation.
Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.” All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.
For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music, and I don’t know how to describe why those moments happen.
In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.
I can also describe the reasons I experience moments of elevation during sporting events. I once watched an NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers that went into overtime. The Charger tight end Kellen Winslow (#80) played a heroic game, catching 13 passes, even though he was treated during the game for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a cut on his lower lip that received three stitches. Teammates had to help him off the field after the game. Such grit and resolve is inspirational.
But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?
I have no idea.
All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.
Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.
No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.
The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.
I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music.
What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.
The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven'sFifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 23:57. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 24:46.
Turn up the volume and enjoy!
Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is credited with founding French opera and developing the French Baroque style in music. His service in the court of Louis XIV made him the most famous musician and composer of his time, and his work as a musician was much appreciated by the king who turned a blind eye to his homosexuality and protected him from the Catholic church.
In music history, however, Lully is too often best known for how he died. Poor Jean-Baptiste was conducting his own composition, Te Deum, and while keeping time by pounding the floor with a wooden staff he hit his own toe. After gangrene set in, he refused to have his toe amputated and died. Weird, but true.
Lully, Te Deum (William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants)
"I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters—who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth."
– Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most accessible composers in music history, and if you don’t enjoy listening to his music, you may never enjoy anything from the classical repertoire.
I've often told students that a great piece of music must be heard several times before it can be fully understood or appreciated. With Debussy that is generally not the case. His compositions can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, and I don't use the word "impression" lightly.
Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872)
Early in Debussy’s career his music was labeled “impressionist," a term that had previously been applied to a style of painting associated with artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The term came from the title of Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise and refers to paintings that use light and color to create a soft-focus image of a scene rather than a detailed representation. By that definition, it's easy to see why some people used the term to describe Debussy's music.
Although Debussy disliked the comparisons of his compositions to Impressionism, the adjectives used to describe Monet’s style of painting can also be used to described Debussy’s music. Like Monet's paintings, Debussy's music is often static and seemingly unconcerned with the need to move forward. Debussy's music might also be described as “blurred,” using harmony and timbre to create musical impressions. Like Monet's paintings, the mood of Debussy's music is more important than the image or story.
Debussy disliked the music of most other composers and criticized the work of Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. (He did, however, seem to like Bach.) This disdain for the music of others can be heard in the way Debussy rejected the musical traditions of past masters and created a whole new musical language. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, he provided listeners with music unlike anything ever heard before. He was an artistic revolutionary and, for that reason alone, ranks as one of the most significant composers of the last century.
The best way to describe Debussy’s music is to take the following ingredients and mix them together. When finished you will have what amounted to a new type of music for the twentieth century.
He was unconcerned with the expectations of his audience, and created a musical language that divorced itself from the long-standing European traditions. He famously wrote: “I want my music to be as relevant to the twentieth century as the airplane.”
His music was largely programmatic, although he did not try to paint a picture or tell a story with his music as much as he tried to evoke a mood.
The sounds of his native language can be heard in his compositions. Debussy was French, and — like the language he spoke — his music was generally free of sharp accents and harsh consonants.
His music emphasized “color” through his creative use of musical timbre. He used instruments either by themselves or in unusual groupings to create sounds that had never been heard in an orchestra.
His music provided unorthodox harmonies and melodic lines. Generally unconcerned with whether his themes were set in a major or minor key, Debussy employed harmonies designed to evoke a certain mood, using whole tone scales (play C – D – E – F# – G# – A# – C on a piano), pentatonic scales (play the black keys on a piano), and chromatic scales (listen to the flute at the beginning of The Afternoon of a Faun on the video embedded below).
Although Debussy’s music was shockingly original when it was first composed, it did not cause the same social earthquake as other modernist music of the early twentieth century. Debussy was as much a revolutionary as composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but the sound he created did not give people a sense that he had turned the musical world upside down — even though he had.
As for my statement above that unlike many other composers Debussy's music can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, let me finish by quoting Debussy on that very subject:
"Love of art does not depend on explanations, or on experience as in the case of those who say, ‘I need to hear that several times.’ Utter rubbish! When we really listen to music, we hear immediately what we need to hear."
Debussy, “Claire de lune” from Suite bergamasque (1905)