Music of the Romantic Era

Note: Before doing this assignment, be sure to read the material on Romanticism. This assignment uses selections from "Discover the Classics," Naxos 8.550035.6

In the wake of the Romantic revolution in literature came a similar revolution in music. About 1820, Beethoven began to write passionate compositions which often threatened to burst asunder the classical forms in which he worked. His 1824 Symphony No. 9 is notable not only for its length and complexity, but for the fact that he introduced vocal soloists and a chorus into the final movement, as if the purely instrumental form of the classical symphony could not express all that he felt. After this radical departure from tradition, many composers felt free to experiment.

Beethoven is also significant in the history of music for being the first composer to earn his living directly from his own work without being subsidized by a church or aristocrat. He benefited from the emergence of the new bourgeois audience which could not afford to retain a composer on salary as Haydn was retained by Prince Esterhazy, but who eagerly bought tickets for Beethoven's concerts. With the money he received from lessons, from the sale of his compositions, and from his public performances, Beethoven was able to survive if not to prosper. This was a crucial factor in allowing him to express his extreme individualism, rejecting the role of artistic servant within which even giants like Haydn and Mozart had been confined. He could write as he pleased and challenge the public to follow him.

As we have seen in discussing the Romantic movement generally, the rise of the new middle classes created a new audience seeking fresh sensations. It was also an audience, which was powerfully drawn to emotion in the arts, and music more than any of the other arts has the capacity to elicit powerful emotions. Although forms like the sonata continued to be used by Romantic composers, the new, wider audiences were less to appreciate the details of the development of themes than to be swept along on waves of melody, harmony, and rhythm.


Disc 1
Track 16:

Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major - Allegro

Franz Schubert (Austrian, 1797-1828), like Beethoven, stands at the threshold of the Romantic era. Though some scholars stress his continued use of classical forms, he is generally considered one of the first of the great romantics.

Schubert's great original contribution to European art music was his invention of the form of the Lied (pronounced "leed") or "art song." A solo voice performs a melody to piano accompaniment. The texts are often poems by more or less distinguished writers. These are carefully composed works, often with variations in melody between verses which would be alien to traditional folk song forms. Lieder (the plural form) are not usually studied by students just beginning to appreciate classical music, but they are an important part of the history of European music. For our purposes, it is important to note that lieder represent one of the many ways in which Romantic composers tried to blend the arts together, making a new creation out of poetry and music. Schubert set an example for many other composers by setting to music poems by Goethe, beginning with "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel") in 1814.

In contrast, his operas are very little known today. His other most important bodies of work are for the piano, especially a series of sonatas, and for string quartet. But the general public is most likely to encounter Schubert in his symphonies, especially the ever-popular "Unfinished" Symphony (No. 8). The Symphony No. 5 in B flat major is a brilliant work, strongly influenced by Haydn and Mozart; but filled with energy and brilliance. It is all the more remarkable for having been written in 1816, when he was 19 years old.

The orchestra is fairly typical of a Classical period ensemble: strings (violins, violas, cellos, and basses) plus one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and tympani (kettledrum). What you will hear is the first movement, "Allegro" ("fast"). It begins with an ascending theme in the strings answered by a down-dropping phrase in the flute. The movement is written in sonata form. Listen at 0:44 as the music makes a transition into a new key in which the second theme (introduced at 1:05) is to be performed. The entire exposition is repeated at 2:00 and there is a brief development section beginning at 4:00. The ensuing recapitulation at 4:57 is followed by a coda at 6:45. See whether you can identify these passages as you listen. The movement retains much of the lively, dance-like quality characteristic of many the Classical period compositions.

Weblinks:

Classical Music Pages on Schubert
Another site with sound clips


Change to Disc 2

Track 1: Berlioz: Rokoczy March

Hector Berlioz (French, 1803-1869) is mostly known for large orchestral works, especially his very popular Symphonie fantastique, one of the earliest examples of a romantic tone poem--a piece which attempts to tell a story through instruments alone, without singers or text. Its themes of doomed love, opium, and witchcraft make it a suitable companion piece to Goethe's Faust. In fact, he wrote two important works setting scenes from Faust. His works are extremely varied, and a fair assessment of his achievements would require listening to far more than the simple march included on this CD.

Berlioz stands out from the other composers we have so far studied in his experimental attitude toward orchestration. His works are marked not only by shifts in rhythm and melody but by striking combinations of instruments used to produce unique timbres (the technical term for the "sound" of--say--a piano versus a harpsichord). Note how the Rokoczy March begins with a brass fanfare, followed by the statement of the theme by winds and strings, punctuated by percussion. In the Classical world, the string dominated symphonic works; but here winds are used profusely for the varied timbres they lend to the piece. Note how the percussion is used to enliven the latter part of the piece with drum rolls and cymbal clashes. From this time on, composers will feel free to vary the sound of the symphony orchestra, often in extreme and surprising ways.

Weblinks:

The Hector Berlioz Website
ClassicalNet page on Berlioz
Classical Music Pages on Berlioz


Track 2: Chopin: Waltz in D flat, Op. 64 No. 1 ('Minute')

Frédéric Chopin (Polish-French, 1810-1849), born in Poland to a French family, was strongly attached to the land of his birth though he lived most of his short life in exile, producing many polonaises and mazurkas (both traditional polish dances). In this respect he illustrates another important trait of many Romantic composers: their interest in the varied national musics of Europe and elsewhere. But unlike Berlioz and others, Chopin was not interested in trying to portray literary texts in music. He wrote "pure" or "absolute" music, almost entirely for the piano. His delicate fingering and the challenging exercises he set in his famous sets of etudes ("studies") revolutionized composition for the piano.

Chopin's music has always been popular among performers and the public alike. His tragically short life has also attracted much public attention, being featured in over a dozen movies of which the most interesting is perhaps the 1991 Impromptu with Hugh Grant playing the composer. Not only was he the lover of Romantic novelist George Sand (the pseudonym of Aurore Dudevant, who not only wrote her novels under a male pseudonym, but wore men's clothes and smoked cigars!), but he also became linked in Paris to a whole generation of Romantic composers living in Paris: Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Vincenzo Bellini, and Felix Mendelssohn.

His waltzes are among his most delightful works, and this little Waltz is the most familiar of the lot. The waltz had evolved in Germany during the 18th Century and was at first considered scandalous because couples locked in tight embrace went whirling giddily across the floor in an all-too-erotic manner. Waltzes were the most popular of social dances in the 19th century. Chopin's waltzes, unlike Johann Strauss II's, are not meant to be danced to; note how the pianist slows down and speeds up repeatedly.

Weblinks:

Classical Net pages on Chopin
Classical Music Pages about Chopin


Track 3: Verdi: Rigoletto (Act III) La donna e mobile

Giuseppi Verdi (Italian, 1813-1901) was the leading operatic composer of the Romantic movement. Although all kinds of theatrical entertainment were popular during the 19th century, nonmusical dramatic genius seemed lacking until Ibsen came along at its end. The real achievements of the Romantics in theater were in opera. We shall be seeing one of Giuseppi Verdi's most popular operas, La Traviata, in this course; but here is a brief aria from another of them.

La Traviata is unusual in having a contemporary 19th-century setting. Opera had originally been inspired in the 17th century by the rediscovery of ancient Greek tragedies, and the idea that operas should tell stories from far away and long ago influenced the choice of subjects. In Rigoletto (based on the French play Le roi s'amuse) the subject is 16th-century tyranny, fatherly devotion, and romantic love. One of the striking characteristics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is the development of the idea of romantic love linked to marriage, which we have inherited today. This development was partly a bourgeois reaction against the cynical aristocratic sensual approach to love and sex of the previous age. Here the typically cynical Duke proclaims to Rigoletto that all women are the same: deceitful. But it is the Duke himself who has deceived Rigoletto's naive daughter, Gilda.

In this opera Verdi let his gift for beautiful melodies flow as never before. Earlier operas had usually come to a full stop dramatically while a soloist spun out lyrical phrases. Verdi integrated story and song more closely in this and later operas than any of his predecessors. Note how some of the most dramatic moments in Traviata take place during arias and ensemble numbers (duets, trios, etc.).

La donna è mobile is one of the most popular tenor arias ever written, and the melody may well be familiar to you even if you've never heard the opera before. Note how the Romantic operatic voice is trained to be full and rich, powerful enough to fill an opera house in the days before electronic amplification.

The Duke sings:

La donna è mobile

Woman is flighty

Qual piuma al vento

Like a feather in the wind

Muta d'accento

Capricious in speech

E di pensiero

and thought

Sempre un amabile

Always a lovable

Leggiadro viso,

Pretty face,

In pianto o in riso,

But whether weeping or laughing

È menzognero.

Always deceitful.

La donna è mobil

Woman is flighty

Qual piuma al vento

Like a feather in the wind

Muta d'accento

Capricious in speech

E di pensier,

and thought,

E di pensier,

and thought,

E di pensier.

and thought.

 

 

È sempre misero

He is always wretched

Chi al lei s'affida

Who trusts her

Chi le confida,

Who confides in her,

Ma cauto il core!

His heart broken!

Ormai non sentesi

But he can never feel

Felice appieno

Complete happy

Chi su quel seno

Who does not drink love

Non liba amore.

From her breast.

La donna è mobil

Woman is flighty

Qual piuma al vento

Like a feather in the wind

Muta d'accento

Capricious in speech

E di pensier,

and thought,

E di pensier,

and thought,

E di pensier.

and thought.

Weblinks:

Classical Net pages on Verdi
Life of Verdi


Track 4: Schumann: Kinderszenen: Träumerei

Robert Schumann (German, 1810-1856) was like Schubert in being a composer of many lieder and important symphonies. He was in fact influenced by Schubert's piano pieces in writing his own. Unfortunately, Schumann was also like him in dying prematurely.

The love of his life, his inspiration and companion, was his wife Clara Schumann-Wieck, herself not only a brilliant pianist but a fine composer in her own right. Unfortunately, it is only now that her works are receiving a wider hearing (try listening to the lovely Piano Trio in G minor). Many of Robert works were written for Clara to play on her acclaimed tours, during which he sometimes felt himself a bit put into the shade by her success. But there is no question that his works are among the most successful and lasting of the Romantic period.

As your notes suggest, this is a dreamy, sweet melody. Note how the music meanders along as the pianist lingers over certain notes. This is very much part of the Romantic style, in contrast to the metrical regularity of most Baroque and Classical music. The melody is very exposed, with minimal harmonic accompaniment. Whereas Beethoven reveled in creating great, complex pieces out of seemingly unpromising scraps of tunes, the later Romantics prized a beautiful melody for its own sake and were content to set it forth rather simply at times.

Weblinks:

Life
More information about Schumann

List of Clara Schumann's works

Recordings of Clara's works in Holland Library:
CDM 656 Piano Concerto
CDM 726
Piano Concerto CDM 639
Piano Trio & Fanny Mendelssohn's Piano Trio
CDM 1241 Secret Whispers: Double Image Pays Homage to Clara Schumann (songs & chamber works)


Track 5: Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1: Allegro maestoso - Tempo giusto

Franz Liszt (Hungarian, 1811-1886) was one of the Romantic era's superstars in the modern sense of the term. He traveled widely performing his unprecedentedly difficult and spectacular piano works all over Europe, generating hysterical enthusiasm in many listeners, and attracting a large number of women who wanted to share his life. A good many succeeded, including the famous Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, whose life formed the basis for the play from which Verdi's opera La Traviata is derived. We sometimes think of the entire 19th century as a time of uniform Victorian repression, but in fact in artistic circles "free love" was very much in vogue. For example, Liszt had a long affair with the married Countess Marie d'Agoult which produced three children including Cosima, who, while married to conductor Hans von Bülow, had an affair with composer Richard Wagner and later married him. The life of a successful romantic musician could be very like that of a modern rock star.

However, there was far more to Liszt than mere flash and style. Inspired by the example of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, he wrote several striking tone poems for orchestra as well as a large body of great piano music. He was also an industrious transcriber of other composer's orchestral works for the piano. In an age in which most middle-class families owned a piano and had one or two performers, there was a large market for these transcriptions, which allowed listeners without access to a symphony orchestra to hear Beethoven symphonies or even the spectacular Symphonie fantastique.

This opening movement from Liszt's first piano concerto, written in 1849, is typical of his dramatic, spectacular style. The tempo marking "Allegro maestoso" means "fast, but majestically so." The following tempo marking, "Tempo giusto" means "steady time," and is meant to indicate that the performer should maintain an even tempo throughout the work over-all, though this should not be interpreted too strictly, since there are many passages in which a phrase is played more slowly than others, "robbing" time for one bar from another--a practice which is called "rubato" and which is very characteristic of the romantic style. The result is a powerful, urgent rhythm which ebbs and flows from moment to moment, but which never slackens. Note as well the striking contrasts between loud and soft passages. Liszt created not only splashy runs and crashes but lovely melodies in his compositions.

Weblinks:

Life
Recommended recordings and more links


Track 6: Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Wedding March

Felix (German, 1809-1847) and Fanny (1805-1847) Mendelssohn were remarkable child prodigies. They were the grandchildren of Moses Mendelssohn, a great Jewish philosopher and scholar who argued for interfaith tolerance and for assimilation of Jews into the mainstream of German culture. His son and the composers' father, Abraham, assimilated so thoroughly as to convert to Lutheranism and add to their name the Protestant one of "Bartholdy" from a maternal uncle, which explains why you will sometimes see Felix's name listed as "Mendelssohn-Bartholdy." Both brother and sister composed remarkable works during their childhood and were outstanding performers; but the family was opposed to Fanny performing in public and Felix especially discouraged her from publishing her works, claiming a few of them as his own. She seems to have accepted this repression to a certain extent and remained a warm supporter of her brother until her death, which preceded his own by only a few months. However, she is now at last gaining the recognition she deserves, with many of her works receiving their first performances since her lifetime in the past decade.

Opera and lieder where not the only forms in which Romantic composers could unite literature and music: they often composed "incidental music" for plays--either new works or classics like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. These works usually consist of an overture to precede the play, short pieces to be performed between scenes and acts, and occasionally music to accompany action on the stage. Mendelssohn's music includes a chorus to be sung by fairies. Today the expense of a full orchestra to accompany a play is prohibitive, and incidental music is usually performed separately, often in the form of a group of selections called a "suite."

It is unfortunate that from among the several delightful movements in the Midsummer Night's Dream music the only one included here is the over-familiar "Wedding March" of Oberon and Titania. Try to listen to it with fresh ears, in its original orchestral garb, as a splashy triumphal march, radiating joy and enthusiasm. Note the spectacular use of brass and percussion to create excitement. At 2:30 the orchestra takes off on an extended interlude which is usually omitted in church organ performances and which provides a nice contrast with the surrounding pomp. Listen to the ending phrases starting around 4:30, with layers of strings, brass, and flutes creating a rich instrumental texture. Interestingly, Fanny also composed organ music for her own wedding which it would be nice to hear replacing Felix's once in a while. ( Information about a recording of this music.)

Mendelssohn and--to a lesser extent--Liszt were largely responsible for the revival of interest in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, previously regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, which has lasted until this day. Unlike the rebellious Liszt, who delighted in writing "demonic" works, including a Faust Symphony, Mendelssohn was devout, and wrote many religious works.

Weblinks:

Biography
Recommended recordings
List of recordings of Fanny's works


Track 7: Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5

Joahnnes Brahms (German, 1833-1897) was one of the giants of Romantic music in the 19th century. When your notes say that he "is principally remembered for his imposing symphonic works" they refer to a mass audience; but those who have cultivated a taste for chamber music love him equally for his many works for small ensemble and solo piano, as well as for his lieder.

Brahms, though writing in a Romantic mode, was an essentially conservative composer, deriving his inspiration from such great Classical predecessors as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He is often referred to as the third of the "three Bs": Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and he was very conscious of continuing their tradition. As your notes imply, when his name his mentioned we probably do not think immediately of light, diverting pieces; but his "Hungarian Dances" are extremely popular, and a good example of the Romantic musical nationalism we discussed earlier. "Musical nationalism" does not refer necessarily to patriotic attachment to one's own country, but often to the exploration of foreign cultures for intriguing "exotic" sounds. To Western Europeans, "Hungarian" implied "Gypsy," and this melody is meant to echo spirited Gypsy fiddle music. Note, however, that this is a concert dance, not meant to be actually danced to.

Weblinks:

ClassicalNet pages on Brahms
More information on Brahms


Track 8: Tchaikovsky: Danse des mirlitons

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (Russian, 1840-1893) wrote operas, piano compositions and various chamber works, but he is chiefly remembered today for his Symphonies 4-6 and his popular ballet scores: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and--above all--The Nutcracker. The connection of the latter with Christmas has led to the constant performance of the familiar suite of dances from the last act of the ballet in late December, but the entire score is brilliant and well worth hearing. Tchaikovsky's music is sometimes scorned by formalists who point out that he lacked the skills in developing melodies of a Beethoven or Brahms, but he had such a prodigious gift for inventing tunes that most listeners are content to be flooded with one delightful melody after another.

Tchaikovsky was a rather gloomy individual who it has been suggested may have been pressured into committing suicide because of his homosexuality, but much of his music reflects a sunny, celebratory mood. This is certainly the case with the Danse des mirlitons ("Dance of the Flutes") from the Nutcracker. Note how the flutes, brass, and strings each take on a distinct personality in this short dance. The Russians were the first to transform ballet into a truly exalted art, and their influence on early 20th century composers was to be enormous.

When you are looking for information about Tchaikovsky, note that his name was originally spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet, and has been variously transcribed as "Chaikovsky," "Tschaikovsky" and even "Tschaikowsky."

Weblinks:

Information about Tchaikovsky
Recommended recordings and more


Track 9: Dvorák: Slavonic Dance, Op. 46 No. 1

Antonin Dvorák (Bohemian, 1841-1904) is particularly well remembered as a advocate for "nationalistic" music. He was the first composer from Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) to become famous abroad, especially in England, where he frequently presented his works. In using folk melodies of his native land he was following in the footsteps of the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, but he demonstrated that he was no national chauvinist by incorporating some American tunes into certain works he wrote while living in the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, including the popular Symphony No. 9 in E Minor subtitled "From the New World" and referred to normally as the "New World Symphony." His symphonies and chamber works are equally popular, filled with wonderful melodies and rhythms.

His Slavonic Dances are among his best-loved works. Note the alternating tonalities of different groups of instruments as they take up different parts of the themes. Listen at 1:06 for a slow, soaring pattern in the violins underneath the livelier dance melody going on above it, picked up later by the brass and then by the flutes, etc. The final part of the piece (2:08) is a repetition of the beginning section, with an interesting coda beginning at 3:20.

Weblinks:

Biography
List of recommended recordings and more
Dvorak in Iowa
More on Dvorak in America


Track 10: Bizet: Carmen: Seguidilla

Georges Bizet (French, 1838-1875) provides our second example of an aria from a Romantic opera, one of the most popular of all time: Carmen. Bizet was fated to be remembered primarily by this one work, although a haunting tenor aria from his Pearl Fishers and his L'Arlésienne Suite are often heard; and the rediscovery in 1935 of his 1855 Symphony in C--evidently never performed during his lifetime--made it an instant popular favorite.

Carmen contains more memorable music than many composers' entire output, however. It was based on a story by Prosper Mérimée about a passionate and ruthless gypsy girl's ruthless seduction of a hapless young soldier. It exemplifies the common Romantic theme of the femme fatale ("fatal woman") who combines blazing sexuality with heartlessness. It also reflects the tendency of Europeans to its north to see Spain as an exotic, sensual land. There is a persistent tendency among Europeans to consider cultures to their east and south as especially sexy. Both Russian and French composers frequently used Spanish rhythms to spice their music. A "seguidilla" is a type of Spanish dance.

In it, Carmen sings and dances flirtatiously about all the fun she and her friends (a group of thieving brigands, as it transpires) could have in her favorite tavern as she seduces the gullible soldier who is guarding her (Don José) into letting her escape by untying her hands. Note the rapid runs of notes performed by the soprano on certain words like "Seville." Don José's speeches are sung to a much more earnest-sounding tune than Carmen's. This is certainly the most glorious bar ad of all time.

 

Carmen (tempting Don José):

Près des remparts de Séville

Near the ramparts of Seville

Chez mon ami Lillas Pastia,

At my friend Lillas Pastia's tavern,

J'irai danser la séguedille

I'll dance the seguidilla

Et boire du Manzanilla!

And drink manzanilla.

J'irai chez mon ami Lillas Pastia!

I'll go to Lillas Pastia's!

Oui, mais toute seule on s'ennuie,

Yes, but one gets bored all alone,

Et les vrais plaisir sont à deux;

And real pleasures are for two,

Donc pour me tenir compagnie

So to keep me company

J'ammènerai mon amoureux!

I'll take along my lover!

 

 

(0:54)

 

 

 

Mon amoureux . . . il est au diable . . .

My lover . . . I've sent him to the devil.

Je l'ai mis à la porte hier!

I threw him out yesterday.

Mon pauvre coeur, très consolable,

My poor heart is easily consoled,

Mon coeur est libre comme l'air!

My heart is free as the air!

J'ai des galants à la douzaine,

I have suitors by the dozen,

Mais ils ne sont pas à mon gré;

But they aren't to my taste.

Voici la fin de la semaine:

Here we are at the weekend.

Qui veut m'aimer? je l'aimerai!

Who wants to love me? I'll love him back!

Qui veut mon âme?. . . elle est à prendre!

Who wants my heart . . . it's up for grabs!

Vous arrivez au bon moment!

You've come along at the right moment!

Je n'ai guère le temps d'attendre,

I don't really have time to wait

Car avec mon nouvel amant,

Because with my new lover I'll go

 

(1:44)

Près des remparts de Séville, etc.

Near the ramparts of Seville . . .

 

(repeat opening)

 

 

 

Don José:

Tais-toi! Je t'avais dit de ne pas me parler!

Shut up! I told you not to speak to me!

 

 

 

Carmen:

Je ne te parle pas, je chante pour moi-méme!

I'm not speaking to you, I'm singing to myself!

Je chante pour moi-méme!

I'm singing to myself!

Et je pense! il n'est pas défendu de penser!

And I'm thinking! Thinking isn't forbidden!

Je pense à certain officier,

I'm thinking of a certain officer,

Je pense à certain officier qui m'aime,

I'm thinking of an officer who loves me

Et qu'à mon tour . . . je pourrais bien aimer!

And who in my turn . . . I could very well love!

 

 

Mon officier n'est pas un capitaine,

My officer is not a captain,

Pas méme un lieutenant il n'est que brigadier;

Not even a lieutenant; he's only a brigadier.

Mais c'est assez pour une Bohémienne,

But that's enough for a gipsy

Et je daigne m'en contenter!

And I'll make do with him!

 

 

 

Don José

(3:17)

(untying the cord binding Carmen's hands)

Carmen, je suis comme un homme ivre,

Carmen, I'm like an intoxicated man.

Si je cède, si je te livre,

If I give in, if I free you,

Ta promesse, tu la tiendras . . .

You must keep your promise . .

Ah! si je t'aime, tu m'aimeras!

Ah, if I love you, you will love me!

 

 

 

Carmen

 

(murmurs)

Oui . . .

Yes . . .

 

 

 

Don José

Chez Lillas Pastia . . .

At Lillas Pastia's tavern . . .

 

 

 

Carmen

Nous danserons . . . la seguedille . . .

We will dance . . . the seguedilla . . .

 

 

 

Don José

Tu le promets! . . . Carmen . . .

You promise! Carmen . . .

 

 

 

Carmen

En buvant du Manzanilla . . .

Drinking Manzanilla . . .

 

 

 

Don José

Tu le promets! . . .

You promise!

 

 

 

Carmen

Ah! . . .

Ah! . . .

Près des remparts de Séville,

Near the ramparts of Seville

Chez mon ami Lillas Pastia,

At my friend Lillas Pastia's tavern,

Nous danserons la séguedille

We'll dance the seguidilla

Et boirons du Manzanilla.

And drink manzanilla.

Tra la la . . .

Tra la la . . .

Weblinks: More information about Carmen
For a real treat, trying viewing the 1984 film version of the opera starring Julia Migenes-Johnson as an especially fiery Carmen (available from Holland Library's Media Materials Services as VHS 14384). For top-notch singing, however, check out Jessye Norman's performance on CDM 1225.


Track 11: J. Strauss: Pizzicato Polka

When people speak of a "Strauss Waltz," they are usually referring to the Viennese Waltzes of Johann Strauss II (Austrian, 1825-1899, also referred to as "Jr.," "the Younger," and "The Waltz King"); but he belonged to a family with many fine composers in it. His works were widely popular during his lifetime and ever since. It has become a custom for the annual New Year's Eve concert of Strauss works in Vienna to be broadcast on PBS in the United States. It is also traditional to perform on that same night his operetta Die Fledermaus ("The Bat"). Science fiction fans will recognize his "Blue Danube" waltz as the music played while the great wheel of the space station spins slowly by in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although they are his most popular works, waltzes actually make up a minority of his 500 dance pieces, many of which are polkas, like this one. Here the novelty is calling for the performers to pluck the strings of their instruments instead of bowing them. This technique is called "pizzicato." Listen for a second theme to be introduced at 1:30, and the opening to be repeated at 2:00, with a coda at 2:15.

Weblink: Recommended recordings


Track 12: Wagner: Die Walküre: The Ride of the Valkyries

"Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883, pronounced "REE-card VOG-ner") has been the center of controversy since he attempted to revolutionize opera in the mid-19th century, causing other composers to divide into Wagnerite and anti-Wagner camps that fought bitterly. In the 20th century, the adoption of Wagner as their favorite composer by the Nazis gained his works further notoriety. He is indisputably one of the most important and influential figures in the history of opera. His masterwork is the vast four-part cycle of operas known as "The Ring of the Nibelung" or "The Ring Cycle," of which Die Walküre is the second part. Wagner strove to establish Germanic mythology as an equal of Greco-Roman mythology by using its stories as the basis of his works. Listeners today still tend to be divided between pro- and anti-Wagner camps, but almost everyone enjoys certain orchestral passages from the operas, including the famous "Ride of the Valkyries," memorably used to accompany a U.S. helicopter attack during the Vietnam War in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In the opera it is performed during the flight of the female warrior spirits known as "Valkyries." Incidentally, among his lesser-known orchestral works is a "Faust Overture."

Weblinks:

Biography
More information
Wagner on the Web


Track 13: Grieg: Incidental music to Peer Gynt: Morning

Edvard Grieg (Norwegian, 1843-1907) was the most important founder of the Norwegian nationalist school of music. In the late Romantic period four great Scandinavians caught the attention of Europe with their masterworks, the revolutionary Swedish playwrights August Strindberg (Sweden) Henrik Ibsen (Norway) and the composers Jean Sibelius (Finland) and Edvard Grieg. Ibsen's most influential works have been his later realistic dramas, but it was for his Romantic 1867 poetic drama Peer Gynt that Grieg was asked to write the incidental music. It is a miniature tone poem in which the birdsongs and shepherd's horn can clearly be heard as the sun rises splendidly above the horizon. Note the way in which the melody is passed around from instrument to instrument.

This is a good place to discuss briefly the issue of "program music." Music which tries to tell a story or set a scene through purely instrumental means is said to have a "program." Such pieces have been written by a wide variety of European composers from the Renaissance forward, and were particularly popular in the 19th century, where all of the arts tended to reach out toward each other. However, in the 20th century there was a strong reaction against this sort of cross-pollination, with many critics insisting that music should stand on its own, and that without explanatory notes, few people would comprehend the literary content of such works. You will often read dismissive comments denying that music can convey specific emotions and ideas.

However, it can be argued that this is an overreaction. Clearly, the composers of program music knew what they wanted. If we understand their compositions as being inseparable from the written program, forming a whole as the soundtrack and images of a film form a whole, the case for program music is much stronger. Operas and ballets show clearly that specific emotions can be evoked by specific musical means, and it should be obvious that purely instrumental works like "tone poems" can use many of the same means to express ideas within certain limits. To complain that the program of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique cannot be understood without notes is like saying that the story of the ballet of Swan Lake cannot be understood without dancers. Each work can be enjoyed on its own, but the composer also expected the listeners to have certain images in mind. To insist that there is something immoral or impure about program music is to resist one of the main impulses of the Romantic spirit.


Writing assignment:

Choose three or more of these pieces to make brief remarks on, including your own personal reactions to the music. You may also include questions that you would like to have answered.

Created by Paul Brians, June 25, 1998

Last revised March 31, 2003.

This page has been accessed times since December 17, 1998.

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