Last month I invited you to Join The Listeners’ Club and explore some of my favorite music. Now, in Part 2, we’ll examine these pieces more closely. Here are some of my thoughts about what makes this music so great. Enjoy the discussion and then go back and listen again. Use the comment thread below to tell me what you hear. What inspires you? What are your favorite parts and why?
Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
What words come to mind as you listen to this music? Noble, majestic, joyous, triumphant…maybe even euphoric?
In 1749 George II of England commissioned Handel to write this piece to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. A public rehearsal held a week before the performance attracted 12,000 people but the performance became a minor disaster when a pavilion in London’s Green Park caught fire.* You can learn more about the background of the piece here. Even more extraordinary than its history is the way this music continues to speak to us almost 300 years later, long after the political currents of its day have been forgotten.
Handel’s use of trumpets and drums evokes images of the battlefield. Did you hear the heroic trumpet fanfares in the Overture, starting at 2:29? Listen to the back and forth dialogue between groups of instruments. First, the trumpets and drums make a statement and then the horns and reed instruments (oboes, bassoons and contrabassoons) answer.
Can you feel the excitement build as the music unfolds? At 3:31 listen to the way the trumpets soar to their highest and most heroic statements and pay attention to the fast, vigorous running notes in the reeds (starting at 3:47). Keep in mind that trumpets in Handel’s time had no valves. Only certain pitches could be played. In order to change pitch the player had to make small lip adjustments.
Listen to this exhilarating music again. What new details do you hear?
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Much of Mozart’s music is deeply tied to his operas which include The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Did you hear a conversation between the solo violin and viola that reminded you of a duet between two characters in an opera? There are no words to be sung here, but you probably still had some idea of what was being said. Maybe you would describe the music as beautiful, passionate, eerie, mysterious and even hinting at the supernatural?
Still, if you honestly evaluate your experience you’ll probably realize that the feelings the music evokes cannot easily be put into words. These feelings are often complicated, ambiguous and go beyond literal description. This is key to understanding the unique power of music.
In addition to the excellent Perlman-Zuckerman recording I recommended last month, I’ll add a 2005 recording featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, violist Yuri Bashmet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Why do you think William Tell is so much fun to listen to? One dramatic trick up Rossini’s sleeve is the long, gradual crescendo. He is able to create a breathless sense of anticipation by starting out softly and gradually letting the music build. We know what’s coming, but the journey is still always exciting.
Here is a live performance by Sir Mark Elder and Britain’s Halle Orchestra:
Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Kathryn commented on Laurel and Hardy style humor in this overture, written in 1956 for the Broadway operetta, Candide. Indeed, this exciting four minute romp is packed with comedy and witty musical jokes. Bernstein even adds a Rossini style crescendo in the coda (3:20).
Timing and surprise are essential elements of comedy. Notice how the rhythm in this piece is constantly keeping you off balance, setting up your expectations and at the last minute giving you something completely unexpected, the musical equivalent of a sight gag. Listen closely to the complex two against three rhythm starting at 3:39.
While Candide was initially a flop on Broadway, this overture has become one of the most beloved pieces of American twentieth century music.
Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)
Do you remember the iconic moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E.T., when the bicycle begins to soar into the air? Can you imagine this scene without John Williams’s score? More than anything else, it’s the music that gives us the feeling of flying.
Unlike the other composers on our list, Williams is almost exclusively concerned with creating music that serves and enhances what is happening on the screen. But even if we took this music out of the movie most of us would still agree that it feels expansive.
To understand why the music gives us this feeling, listen again from the beginning, and pay attention to the melody in the strings which begins 13 seconds in. Do you notice how each phrase of the melody includes a wider jump between notes? The melody climbs, each time ending in a slightly higher place. Bird chirps from the woodwinds, and splashes of color from the harp and bells add a magical shimmer and sparkle to the sound. Just when we think we can’t climb any higher, the music modulates up a key to C Major (1:58) and then climaxes at 2:17 when the horns soar above the entire orchestra.
(*Handel and Occasional Music by Roger Hamilton, pg. 4)