Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Music Compositions of All-time…Composition #8/50: String Quintet in E Major, Op

Minuet and Trio (A Major) by Luigi Boccherini.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about this classical music series is how well known so many of these compositions actually are. I am willing to bet that, like me, many of you would have trouble recognizing this composition from the title listed above, but believe me when I tell you that you have all heard this piece many times and will recognize it from the very first violin notes that you hear. In fact, I might recommend that the best course of action for you to take at this very moment is to stop reading my words, and instead go to the bottom of the post, click on the link that will take you to a live recording of Boccherini’s String Quintet and then, once you have the tune in your head, come back and continue on with the post. So…off you go! See you back in a bit.

Aaaaaah, you are back! I told you that you would recognize that piece of music. To be precise, that famous piece of music is actually one of four separate compositions that combine to make up the official String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No.5. The section you heard was the third movement from the String Quintet. It is a minuet (which is a short social dance for two people). This minuet is called “Minuetto, Trio (A Major)” as it is known in Italian. So, now that you have had a listen, let’s talk a little about the man who composed it, Luigi Boccherini.

Luigi Boccherini.

Like many famous composers, Boccherini was born into a musical family. His father, Leopoldo, was a well known cellist and violinist. His brother, Giovanni, was a poet who ended up writing several librettos (booklets containing storylines, stage directions, etc…, which accompanied instrumental compositions such as operas or ballets) for such luminaries as Joseph Haydn and Antonio Salieri. Because of his family’s musical connections, Boccherini was able to obtain private lessons and attend prestigious musical schools throughout Italy. At age fourteen, Boccherini and his father travelled to Vienna and gained employment as musicians at the Royal Court. As an eighteen year old, Boccherini moved to Madrid and wrote the majority of his life’s work under the direct patronage of Prince Luis, the brother of King Charles III of Spain. At one point, he angered the King because of a disagreement between the two regarding part of one of Boccherini’s compositions. Boccherini was dismissed from his royal patronage position. However, Prince Luis was so enamoured of Boccherini’s work, that instead of Boccherini becoming an outcast, it was Prince Luis who left the Royal Court, establishing new homes in several small coastal villages in which Boccherini was always provided accommodation. Upon the death of Prince Luis, Boccherini secured new patronage positions with, among others, Lucien Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as King Wilhem II of Prussia.

The manner in which Luigi Boccherini lived his life as a composer operating in royal circles under the patronage and protection of important people is how many composers of the day earned their living. It was rare for the Boccherinis and Salieris of the world to do anything even remotely controversial that may offend their patron or draw shame on their reputations. For the most part, composers like Boccherini helped those in power to enjoy the lifestyle that came with such privilege. The best example of this style of composing can be seen in his String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5. The famous minuet that has become so ubiquitous in our modern world had its origins in the ballrooms of royal palaces where dances might be held before or after the feast. Today, that same ballroom minuet is used in countless tv shows and movies to help create an air of formality and wealth for the characters on screen. I wonder if any of you have ever been at an event at which the “Minuetto, Trio (A Major)” was played? If so, I imagine it was a stately affair.

Statue of Luigi Boccherini. Lucca, Italy.

Despite his access to the rich and powerful people of the day, Boccherini was not granted any form of immortality. He passed away in 1805 having outlived all of his royal patrons, two of his wives and four of his daughters. Only two sons managed to outlive him. After his funeral, Boccherini was laid to rest in Madrid. His remains were removed in 1927 when he was reburied in his hometown of Lucca. There is a small statue dedicated to his memory that you can visit should you ever find yourself in Lucca, Italy. But more than any statue, Boccherini’s lasting legacy lies squarely upon a short minuet that has become so famous that it is simply known as The Celebrated Minuet. While Boccherini was no classical one-hit wonder, he is best known for the minuet contained within his String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5. As I have stated before when talking about modern music, if you are only going to be remembered for one hit, then make sure it is a great one. I think that “The Celebrated Minuet” is one such great composition.

The link to the video for the composition “Minuet and Trio (A Major) from “String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5” by Luigi Boccherini can be found here.

The link to the official website of a museum dedicated to the memory of Luigi Boccherini can be found here.

The link to the official website for the classical music radio station in my very own town…Classical 103.1 FM…can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Classical Compositions…Song # 6/50: Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39 by Sir Edward Elgar.

To my way of thinking, “Pomp and Circumstance” is the classical music equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” It is a series of marches that evoke much in the way of patriotic fervor from audiences: particularly from British audiences. It was composed by Elgar just prior to the beginning of WWI, which was a time when, as they say, the sun didn’t set on the British Empire. A clue to Elgar’s true intentions with this composition can be seen in its title. “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” is actually a series of five-six marches. When first released, these marches aligned nicely with the militaristic mythology of the mighty British Empire, but in actual fact, Elgar was making a political statement with his music. He was attempting to cleverly convey a warning to regular citizens who might find themselves enlisting in a fit of patriotism because they were seduced by the “pomp” of the messaging being aimed at them. Elgar wanted everyone to be aware of the “circumstances” of trench warfare which was to be the new way of fighting in a war that was just around the corner. So, “Pomp and Circumstances, Op. 39”, like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, ranks as one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written.

But, the irony of Edward Elgar’s most famous composition does not end there. In life, we often view events that provoke a sense of cognitive dissonance as being normal simply because they are allowed to happen again and again. Thus, we may feel that something is awry but we come to accept it because everyone else seems to be ok with it. With “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39”, the question that begs to be asked is how did a British military-inspired suite of marches become the defacto processional march for high school and university graduates in North America? At this time of year (specifically in Canada) the school year is drawing to a close, and with it, many students are participating in graduation ceremonies. It is rare to find a ceremony anywhere in which “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” isn’t played as the graduating students enter the auditorium. The story of how this came to be says a lot about the type of person Edward Elgar actually was. Here is his story.

Edward Elgar at his piano.

Growing up, Elgar found himself on the outside of the strata of society from which he would come to draw much of his audience in later years. His father worked as a piano tuner. Because of his father’s access to pianos, young Edward was able to learn how to play and then to develop his skills. As a young boy, it was assumed that Edward would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a piano tuner, as well. Perhaps, because of his improving musical skill set, he might become a piano instructor and earn a little extra money from giving private lessons to young students. So, while other young, rising musical stars were off studying at music academies abroad, Elgar was working piecemeal at home. All throughout his teenage years, Elgar believed he was meant for small things because of how the British class system worked at the time. He was Catholic at a time when Catholicism was on the outs. He was working class and lacked connections. His family did not come from money. He had not graduated from high school, dropping out when he was only fifteen years of age. At one point, he found a mentor in the form of violinist Adolf Pollitzer, but Elgar stopped his lessons with Pollitzer because he felt his skills would never be such that he could stand as an equal with his peers.

Caroline Roberts and Edward Elgar.

However, one of Life’s great lessons is to be true to yourself. Edward Elgar had always loved music, but what he really liked was composing music rather than playing it. Having to make ends meet meant that Elgar was forced to play and teach, and therefore he didn’t have the luxury of being able to indulge his passion for composing very often. Then, he got his big break in life. One of his violin students was a young woman who had decided against marriage. Her name was Caroline Roberts, and she was determined to live as a single woman (who, in those days, would be called a spinster). However, when her family hired Elgar to provide Roberts with violin lessons, she became quite taken with him. Her family forbade her from marrying Elgar because he was considered to be beneath her station in life. However, love conquered all and they were wed. Roberts’ family disowned her and cut off all of her funding. That didn’t faze young Caroline because she had published a book of poetry and was becoming known in literary circles as a writer of some renown. With her steady writing income, she and Edward were able to live a modestly comfortable life. More importantly, Edward was not having to work as long and hard as he once did as a music teacher and started to devote some of his time to composing.

Even though Elgar began creating compositions that attracted praise from music critics, he remained plagued by self-doubt. He was his own worst critic and often turned down opportunities to attend social events and make important connections with wealthy patrons simply because he never felt as though he belonged in higher society. But even though he was loath to promote himself and to network with those he deemed his superiors because of social status, Elgar increasingly came to believe in his own abilities as a composer. That rising sense of personal self-confidence allowed him to compose his first great musical work which ended up being called “The Enigma Variations”. The success of “The Enigma Variations” in 1899 pushed him into the public spotlight and garnered for him a sense of acclaim that not even he could deny any longer. Having achieved a hit that first time gave Elgar a better sense of what it took to create top-notch music that would succeed at a national level. So, a few years later in 1901 when he began stitching together a suite of marches, Elgar recognized immediately that he had another hit on his hands. In fact, when “Pomp and Circumstance” was premiered, the response was so rapturous that the entire suite was repeated twice! Since then, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance, Op 39” is viewed by many as the unofficial national anthem of Britain. In 1904, the piano tuner’s son was knighted and became Sir Edward Elgar, Britain’s pre-eminent composer!

Presenting “Sir” Edward Elgar! Newly knighted and now regarded as England top composer.

So, how did Sir Edward Elgar’s suite of marches become the standard processional accompaniment at North American graduation ceremonies? Not long after Elgar was knighted, the former high school dropout was invited to cross the Atlantic and accept an honourary music degree from Yale University. In America, Elgar was viewed with much respect for his accomplishments and was fêted as an honoured dignitary upon his arrival. Wanting to make Elgar feel welcome and comfortable, an orchestra played several of his compositions throughout the course of commencement ceremonies but saved “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” for the grande finale. Everyone in attendance that day stated that Elgar’s music was the perfect complement to the graduation ceremony in that it sent the graduates out into the world with a fitting combination of praise for their academic accomplishments to date and belief in the awesome nature of the potential each possessed. Word quickly spread to other universities in the US as to how perfectly “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” lent itself to such ceremonies, and as is often the case, Yale’s success was mimicked elsewhere and in no time at all, it became the unofficial music of just about all graduation ceremonies everywhere.

The story of Sir Edward Elgar is one that should be held up and told to students everywhere, because it is the quintessential example of what can happen if you work hard and believe in yourself and…let’s be honest, catch a lucky break or two along the way. Elgar was a highschool dropout without any social or professional connections of note, and yet, he was able to follow his passion and turn that into great success. The man who never felt he merited a place in higher society is now venerated as being Britain’s most important composer of all time. The high school dropout ended up becoming Dr. or Professor Elgar because of his degree from Yale. Finally, as history cruelly demonstrated, Elgar was among the very first to correctly predict that the “circumstances” of warfare would end up being truly horrific and would come to fuel anti-”Pomp” sentiments that had been so central to Britain’s belief in who it was as a country.

As the sun has come to set on the British Empire, Sir Edward Elgar has risen to become one of most respected figures of his time. History has treated him with the utmost kindness. Not a bad life at all for a piano tuner’s son.

The link to the video for the composition “Pomp and Circumstance, Op.39” can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sir Eward Elgar can be found here.

The link to the classical music station located in my hometown…Classical 103.1…can be found here.

***As always, all original content of this post remains the sole property of the author. NO part of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: the Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Classical Music Compositions…Song # 5/50: An der schonen, blauen Donau, Opus 314 by Johann Strauss II

The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II.

Today we will be discussing one of the most famous waltzes of all time, Johann Strauss II’s An der schonen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 or, as it is much more commonly known in the English speaking world, “The Blue Danube”. This waltz has become so popular that many people refer to it as Austria’s unofficial national anthem. “The Blue Danube” is performed many times throughout the year in Austria and around the world and holds the record for being the most-performed waltz ever recorded. In Austria, “The Blue Danube” traditionally closes New Year’s Eve concerts so that this waltz is always the final piece of music performed live there to close out each and every year.

The “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss II.

Johann Strauss II left a musical legacy for the world that included over 500 pieces of light music which is basically meant to be music to dance to such as waltzes, polkas and so on. Because of the enormous number of popular dance compositions Strauss II created, he is known in musical circles as the “Waltz King”. However, Strauss II’s rise to prominence was not without its challenges. For example, he was named after his father, Johann Strauss, who, in his day, was a man of musical renown as well. The senior Strauss spent many of his days rehearsing, performing and traveling with an orchestra throughout Austria and the rest of central Europe. He found the lifestyle to be very demanding and pledged that his two sons, Johann the Younger and Eduard, would not be allowed to follow in his footsteps and would, instead, live more settled and established lives as bankers. The problem with this plan was that both sons inherited from their father his gift for creating and performing music. Johann Strauss the Younger secretly practiced many instruments as a child whenever his father was away on tour. He became so skilled that one time, when his father was too ill to fulfill his orchestral duties, Strauss the Younger was asked to stand in his father’s place. He did so, much to the chagrin of his father, who threatened to disown him if he did not immediately stop. Well, even a few centuries ago, teenage rebellion against one’s parents was a very real thing, and Strauss the Younger refused to bend to his father’s will and ended up going on tour with the orchestra. His maturity and musical skill were evident to all, and his path as a composer was formalized.

As much as Johann Strauss II’s act of rebellion infuriated his father, it served as an important step in terms of the evolution of light music at the time in Austria and the rest of Europe. Back in the mid-1800s, light music was often composed for formal balls. At these balls, members of higher society would engage in dance routines that were more akin to what we might call country line dancing today. Specifically, the royal dancing routines tended to involve parallel movements in which partners would dance in unison, side-by-side, or else facing each other while mirroring each other’s moves. When Johann Strauss II started composing a style of light music called a waltz, it revolutionized how social dancing was performed and enjoyed. The big innovation that came as a result of waltzing was that the dance partners actually touched and moved as one, instead of standing side-by-side and moving separately from each other. The fact that couples touched each other and held on closely in a public setting was initially thought to be scandalous behaviour. However, as the music of waltzes became more well known among the general public, the intimate nature of the dance proved very popular. Holding a loved one close, in a sexually-charged, romantic or loving way became socially acceptable behaviour. Not surprisingly, Johann Strauss II was given much of the credit for introducing this new element to light music and became a very popular public figure as a result.

“The Blue Danube” was first composed with a complete set of lyrics that sang the praises of the beauty of the Danube river that flows across much of Europe. This composition was meant to be a morale booster for Austrians who were down in the dumps due to their country having been bested by Prussia during the Seven Weeks’ War. But, while the audience liked the instrumental side of this composition, they found the lyrics to be grating on their nerves. So, for a while, Strauss the Younger shelved “The Blue Danube” and refused to perform it, considering it to be a failure. However, he was encouraged by many to revisit his composition and present it without lyrics at the opening of the Paris World Fair. The version of “The Blue Danube” that premiered there was warmly received and has stayed as the version the world has come to know and love.

As an interesting aside, I have learned something while researching these classical music posts that I hadn’t considered before. Eventually, Johann Strauss the Elder passed away and the two Strauss brothers were free to indulge in their love of music. As they moved forward in life, Eduard and Johann the Younger made a pact. That pact centered around a pledge that each made to the other that whoever died first, the surviving brother would take the deceased brother’s life work and destroy it. This seems at first blush to be a very drastic and unnecessary pledge to make. However, back in the 1800s, there were no such things as copyright laws to protect one’s original work. Furthermore, printing presses were only just becoming commonplace so the notion of making multiple copies of original compositions or manuscripts was not something that many people considered doing. Some composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, hired people whose sole job was to make a historical record of their work. Consequently, whenever you research a composition created by Bach, you will see an additional notation in the title, “BWV” which stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” or “Bach Works Catalogue”. The Strauss brothers had no such person designated to preserve their original compositions. So, when Johann the Younger passed away, his brother Eduard acted on their pact and began burning his brother’s work in order to protect his legacy. As it turned out, the Strauss brothers were worried that their work would fall into the hands of less-skilled, inferior composers and unwarranted alterations to their greatest compositions would begin circulating in their name, thus sullying their reputations. Fortunately for us, many of Strauss the Younger’s compositions were so popular during his lifetime that other composers copied them for themselves while Strauss was still alive. So, it has become a matter of debate among classical music historians as to how authentic the over 500 compositions of waltzes and other forms of light music that bear Johann Strauss II’s name actually are, and how many are copies by other composers. We may think that matters of copyright law are modern affairs, but truth be told, it is because of situations such as those faced by the Strauss brothers and other composers of that time almost two centuries ago that the idea of an artist being able to protect the sanctity of their original work came to be.

Music historians are fairly confident that the sheet music for “The Blue Danube” contains Strauss the Younger’s original notations. The composition was such a huge hit that it was copied verbatim by many other composers at the time, so historians have a large number of copies by many composers that all use the same notes, chord progressions, tempo, etc…, and which all give credit to Johann Strauss II as composer. Whether or not there is an original copy of “The Blue Danube” written in Strauss the Younger’s own handwriting is up for debate, but the unaltered nature of his composition is not. So, with that having been said, let’s all enjoy one of the most beloved waltzes ever composed, “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition “The Blue Danube” can be found here.

The link to the official website for a museum dedicated to the works of Johann Strauss II can be found here.

The link to the official website for Classical Music station 103.1 in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, this is a reminder that all original content found in this post is the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any way without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: the Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions in History…#4/50: The Overture to Carmen by Georges Bizet

Carmen by Georges Bizet is considered to be one of the most important and well-constructed operas ever produced. The piece of music from Carmen that we are looking at today is known as the Prelude or Overture. Generally speaking, any time you hear that a piece of music is an Overture, it tends to mean that it is music that precedes the actual opera or musical or symphony. The purpose of an Overture is to set a tone for what is to come. In the specific case of the Overture to Carmen, you will note that in the upper left-hand corner of the sheet music is the term Allegro Giocoso. The term Allegro means to play at a fast or upbeat tempo. When combined with the term Giocoso, it means to play at a fast and cheerful or joyous tempo. As with many of the classical compositions I am profiling for you in these posts, I have great confidence that you have heard this Overture before. It is one of those compositions that has become interwoven into our cultural and artistic experiences in life. Even if you know nothing about the opera, Carmen, I am sure you will listen to the opening notes of this Overture and nod knowingly. However, familiarity with this tune is just the beginning of your journey today. Carmen is such a famous opera because it was pioneering in scope. It also made a hero out of its composer, Georges Bizet, who, in turn, became one of Classical Music’s most tragic figures. So, let’s polish our eyeglasses and get ready, because the curtain is about to rise on one of Opera’s most famous tales, which begins, as almost all operas do, with an Overture.

Georges Bizet.

Georges Bizet was born in France in 1838. He was viewed as a child prodigy in much the same way that Mozart was when he first came to the attention of the Royal Court in Vienna. Bizet was enrolled in the very best private music academies and won many awards for his virtuosity on the piano, including the prestigious Prix de Rome, as a teenager. However, there were several aspects of his life that conspired against his future success. For starters, Bizet did not like to perform in public. So, even though his music professors and mentors were all aware of his talent, Bizet rarely displayed those skills for the public and/or for influential people in the French aristocracy. As a result, Bizet’s public popularity was never great. Furthermore, Bizet did not always believe in himself, and therefore, even when he was given commissions to work on, he often failed to complete them because he was never confident that his compositions were good enough, or more to the point, that they never quite measured up to the high standards he set for himself behind closed doors. But the biggest obstacle that Bizet faced when it came to becoming a famous composer during his lifetime had to do with the nature of opera and of classical composition at that time in history.

Up until the mid to late 1800s, it was felt that for an opera or a symphony to be considered proper, it had to be made in a way that promoted or upheld proper virtues of the time. Proper virtues were considered to be music that praised God, as well as music that praised royalty and the policies of governance that monarchs espoused. Well, Georges Bizet did not believe in organized religion, and so he felt that creating works that praised God made him a fraud, and that because he didn’t believe in God, any work he created in God’s name would, by the very nature of his feelings toward the subject matter, be flawed. Since Bizet had high standards for himself, he refused to create work that would be flawed before it was ever premiered in public, so as a result, he simply refused to play the role of a traditional composer. Bizet’s refusal to toe the line, as it were, cast him as an outsider in the political sense in the competitive world of classical music in France.

But sometimes being viewed as an outsider is where one needs to be in order to have the freedom to create original work. This was the case for Bizet and for his opera, Carmen. All throughout Europe in the 1800s the music establishment continued to operate as it always had, which was to create works praising God and/or royalty. However, there was an undercurrent of discontent that was percolating in quiet salons and small playhouses. It was in these locations that some composers began creating operas and symphonies for the common citizen. The stories being told in these smaller venues concerned more realistic themes such as sexuality, crime, the politics of daily living, poverty and so on. This type of storytelling became known as Verismo, or realistic, theatre. It was toward the Verismo school of storytelling that Bizet was always drawn and it was Carmen…his opera…that was Verismo’s first great work.

The story of Carmen revolves around a young man who falls in love with a Gypsy woman named Carmen. However, Carmen understands the power of her beauty, and so she uses her feminine wiles to seduce a man of influence so as to advance her own station in life. In a fit of jealous rage, Carmen’s lover is killed, and Carmen, herself, ends up losing her life. The opera Carmen was a morality tale bordering on the bawdy, in which the central character dies. All of this was unheard of in the established opera scene in Paris at the time. As such, Bizet’s work was savaged by the critics, and his opera was closed after only a few weeks of performances. At the time, Carmen was considered yet another failure by Bizet, in a long line of failures in a career that many considered to be an utter disappointment. Bizet lapsed into a state of depression which, coupled with a throat condition (which may have been cancer), caused Bizet to pass away at the very young age of 37 years. In death, his many compositions were destroyed or given away by his wife because they were valued so poorly as to be considered worthless. Several other composers adapted Bizet’s score for Carmen so much that, for a while, it was difficult to accurately know where Bizet’s influence left off and the work of newer composers began.

During his life, Bizet was judged harshly by his critics. However, history painted a much more complimentary picture of the man and his work. It all began when composers such as Rossini and Puccini gained fame using the Verismo style of storytelling. As the telling of stories steeped in realism became more commonplace in theatre and opera, many people began wondering how it all came to be. What were the trailblazing productions that served as the foundation for modern theatre and opera? As experts traced the evolutionary path backwards, they kept coming back to Bizet’s so-called notorious work, Carmen. Viewed with more modern eyes, the plotline of Carmen hardly seemed profane anymore. In fact, when critics had a closer look at Carmen, they came to realize how revolutionary it was in terms of its construction, how Bizet’s musical score complemented the emotions of the characters and the emotional reaction of audiences, and so on. Carmen was restaged toward the turn of the century and was very well received. In the century since those new performances, the opera Carmen has been performed thousands of times, and fittingly enough, it has become the most performed opera of all time in Paris. Around the world, Carmen is regarded as one of the finest operas ever produced. It is certainly Georges Bizet’s magnum opus.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am highly confident that you will all recognize the Overture to Carmen as soon as the opening notes are played. Furthermore, I am equally confident that you would recognize a second piece…an aria called the Habanera which appears early on in the opera when Carmen first appears on stage and sings, as a way of introducing herself. So, I am going to provide links below for both pieces of music.

It is tragic how we allow our biases to cloud our judgements at times. How different Georges Bizet’s life may have been if the social mores had been different while he was alive. If they had been then, perhaps the ingenious nature of his opera would have been more greatly appreciated, and his status as a composer of note and worth would have been elevated. Positive recognition of Bizet’s talent coming when it did is fine as far as his legacy goes, but it is cold comfort to a man (and his family) whose life’s work was deemed worthless and thrown in the trash after his death. I wonder if, as you read these words, there are geniuses alive today whose work is mocked and reviled by those with judgey states of mind. I guess that only time will tell.

The link to the video for the composition Overture to Carmen by Georges Bizet can be found here.

The link to the video for the instrumental version of the composition Habanera by Georges Bizet can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Georges Bizet Museum in Paris can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Classical Music station found in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada….Classical 103.1….can be found here.

***As always, please be aware that all original content of this blog post is the sole property of the author. The content of this post may not be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the expression written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: the Stories Behind Some of the Most Memorable Classical Compositions in Music History…Compositon 3/50: O Fortuna by Carl Orff

The story of today’s musical composition begins, for me, in the early 1990s with the rental of a video cassette of the movie Moonstruck from my local Blockbuster Video store. You may recall that Moonstruck was the Academy Award winning movie starring Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello and Olympia Dukakis. In the movie, Cher was supposed to marry Danny Aiello’s character, but as it turned out, she actually fell in love with her fiancé’s brother, as played by Nicolas Cage. At one point in the movie, Cage’s courtship of Cher involved him taking her to see an opera. Cage showed up for the date all handsome and cleaned up in a tuxedo. The music of the opera soars. Cher swoons. If there was ever any doubt as to whether Cher would pick the rough n’ ready Cage over the loyal but dull Aiello, it all ended as La Bohème was sung and a single tear fell upon Cher’s cheek. Cage’s character proclaims, “I love opera and I love you!” Cher slaps him across the face and demands that he “snap out of it!” But the romantic die has been cast, and the rest of the movie is an exercise in everyone coming to understand that true love must follow its own course.

Because of this movie, I went through a phase in my life where I very much enjoyed listening to opera. Moonstruck removed some of the mystery for me when it came to appreciating and understanding opera. The scenes from the movie in which operatic arias played in the background of everyday family life made it seem as though opera could be every bit the soundtrack of the real lives of real people, as could Rock n’ Roll. What this movie did most of all was to make opera cool, and dare I say, even sexy. So, in order to immerse myself in a musical genre that I had absolutely zero experience in, I did what I always did back in those days, and that was, I ordered a compilation CD from the Columbia House Music Club. That CD was called Opera Goes To The Movies. My “opera phase” coincided with my bachelor boy days, and specifically, it happened during a time when I was in-between relationships. It was during those stretches of time when I wasn’t actively dating anyone that time could seem long, and so I would occasionally go for drives at night. There was just something about driving in the darkness, arias blaring, that was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. One time, I drove all the way into Toronto from Oshawa along back roads and ended up downtown, stopped at an intersection as Margo Timmins (lead singer of the band, Cowboy Junkies, and a group of her friends all crossed the road in front of me). In the end, the allure of driving alone while listening to opera as others dreamed in their beds or danced in their clubs gave way to the practical reality that, perhaps, this was kind of a weird thing to be doing. So, I stopped, of my own accord. But to this day, I still listen to opera from time to time, and, when I do, O Fortuna is still one of my favourite tunes of them all.

The funny thing about writing these posts is that most of the time I know the story I am going to tell before I even start, and the only thing I really gain from doing my research is some data to fill in the blanks of the tale I am telling. So, in the case of this post, I entered into it knowing that I was going to talk about Moonstruck and opera becoming accessible for me, as I did in the paragraphs above. So, when I went to conduct my research, I did so thinking that I would find out a little about Carl Orff and some statistical details about O Fortuna and then, that would be that. However, a funny thing happened on the way to that conclusion. The opening sentence in the Wikipedia piece dedicated to O Fortuna reads, “O Fortuna is a medieval Latin Goliardic poem which is part of a collection known as Carmina Burana, written early in the 13th century.” It’s what!? Pardon me. This soaring, anthemic battle cry of a song is actually a poem?! Colour me confused. So, obviously, more research was needed. In the course of that research, I discovered some interesting history which has changed how I view this composition.

Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

For example, until I came to write this post, I never knew that there ever existed a group of medieval clergymen known as the Goliards. The Goliards were monks who lived and trained in many western European countries during the thirteenth century. They were different from the monastic monks who took vows of silence and dedicated themselves to living their lives as purely and with as much self-discipline and deprivation as possible. The Goliards wrote satirical commentary in the form of epic poetry. They traveled the countryside performing these poems and, as such, are considered to be one of the first true minstrels in modern history. The term, Goliard, is derived from the story of David and Goliath, and was meant to indicate that those possessing the power of spoken word and music were very powerful people. Part of how the Goliards came to be is because of how family fortunes were distributed almost one thousand years ago. In those days, the first born son usually inherited any wealth that had been accrued by the father. This left any other brothers without a means of financial support, should the first born son decide to keep the entire family fortune for himself. Thus, a traveling class of men, whose opinion was respected, emerged and became known as Goliards. Goliards wrote of scholarly matters, but they also wrote about social themes, and some even wrote bawdy tales about sexual encounters and alcohol. Because of the politics of speaking out, the Goliards always trod a fine line with the Church. A collection of complaints about the rigid rules of the Church was compiled and became known as the Carmina Burana.

In the 1930s, German composer Carl Orff decided to create a cantata based upon the Carmina Burana poems written by the Goliards. A cantata is a musical piece that is meant to be sung. By contrast, a sonata is a musical piece meant to be played with instruments. As it turned out, the first Goliardic poem he set to music was O Fortuna. If you have never heard this piece of music before then get ready, for it is a very rousing piece of music. Without knowing any of its origin story, whenever I listened to O Fortuna as I drove under starry skies or amid a city of lights, I always envisioned this composition as being “Battle Music”. It is a composition that starts off loudly and in a shrill-like fashion and then drops down to a mere whisper. In time, that whisper becomes louder and more confident, eventually turning into a full-throated battle cry! In my imagination, I always saw visions of Braveheart-like battlefields filled with legions of soldiers on horseback riding off into battle, banners waving, hearts pounding, voices raised in an intimidating cacophony. Well, as I have discovered, I am not the only person to have had these visions. As it turned out, Carl Orff became a famed composer during WWII and was much beloved and respected by those in power in Germany at the time. The Nazis felt that Orff had managed to encapsulate the essence of Ayran power and purity in this one piece of music, and as such, he was highly favoured in German Arts circles at the time. Orff’s unwillingness to stand up for other German composers and artists who suffered under Nazi rule left a stain on his reputation that no future post-war composition was able to erase.

If you ever wonder about how so many seemingly ordinary white men end up being radicalized into violence, then let this post be a warning to you all. There I was back in the 1990s, feeling at odds with life, driving alone in my car through sleeping communities, songs like O Fortuna blasting away on my car stereo, visions of battlefields mingling with the twinkling of the stars over my head. In the end, the thing that kept me from falling completely under the spell of a song I never knew had Nazi roots was the fact that in the daytime I was surrounded by children in my classroom. Their innocence and kindness and compassion always seemed to keep my heart and soul where they needed to be until such time as I met my future wife and discovered the power of what Love can do to one’s mindset and future ambitions. But for every story like mine, there are countless other stories of young men drifting through life as I was, with nothing to temper the emotional draw of a rousing song like O Fortuna. For those men, with nothing to counterbalance the imaginary call-to-arms that is interwoven within the musical structure of one of Hitler’s favourite pieces of music, it is easier to see how they can come to see the world through different eyes.

I really like O Fortuna. I do! I also really wish that my love for this piece of music wasn’t something I shared with Adolf Hilter and his comrades, too. I guess that I am lucky, as things turned out. I guess we all are.

The link to the video for the song O Fortuna by Carl Orff can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Moonstruck can be found here.

The link to the official website for classical music station, 103.1, located in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the World’s Great Classical Compositions…Song #2/50: Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber

Today’s composition is one of the most famous American classical compositions of all-time: Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings, Opus 11. We know that the word Opus means that this was Barber’s eleventh published composition, but today we are also going to discuss the meaning of the word Adagio. Adagio is a musical term that instructs orchestras on which tempo (or speed) to use when playing the song. Specifically, Adagio means to play slowly. If you look at the sheet music above, you will note the term, Molto adagio at the top, left hand corner. This means Very Slowly. So, even before looking at what notes to play, an orchestra member would note the instruction given by the composer regarding the tempo they had in mind and formulate an appropriate playing style in their minds before ever beginning to play. The term Allegro is the counter-balance to Adagio, as it means to play quickly, with energy and joy. Consequently, before we start to discuss the nature of this famous composition, you can tell from its title that Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 was Samuel Barber’s eleventh composition, that it was written for stringed instruments and that it will be a piece of music that is played slowly because of the use of the term, Adagio.

Samuel Barber was one of America’s most famous and prolific composers from his early days during the Great Depression, all the way to his death in the early 1980s. He was born into a musical family. His mother was a concert pianist and his aunt was an opera singer. Barber showed prodigy-like talent from an early age and was writing his own sonatas before the age of ten. Such was Barber’s talent that he was enrolled in a special school for musically gifted children called The Curtis School in Philadelphia. While just entering his teens, Barber graduated with a triple-major in Voice, Piano and String music. While still a young man in his early twenties, Barber began writing operas. While doing so, he fell in love with a tenor named Gian Carlo Menotti and began a love affair that spanned over a half century. In addition to being a gifted composer, Barber was just as well known for being an educator and has been often cited by modern American composers as a role model and mentor for those lucky enough to have worked under his guidance. Samuel Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice, but his best known work is Adagio For Strings, Opus 11.

Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was written for a string quartet in 1939. America was just regaining its moxy after having suffered through The Great Depression. However, the mood in the U.S.and around the world was somber, as World War II was just about to start in Europe. Barber’s composition is certainly one that captured the forlorn nature of the times. Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 has been voted as being the saddest song in the world. It possesses beauty and elegance, but does so in a way that often elicits an emotional response from listeners in the form of sadness. Not surprisingly, Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 has become one of the most requested funeral songs and has been played at the funerals of prominent people such as Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein. It was also played in England to close out the famous BBC Proms series of concerts just after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 was first played on NBC Radio during a performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as conducted by famed conductor, Arturo Toscanini. It was also the very first musical composition played when the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts first opened in the 1960s. This musical composition has been used to create a reflective, emotional mood in movies, too. Most famously, Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was played while Willem Dafoe’s character was killed in the Vietnam war movie, Platoon. *(I will include that scene in the links below).

It is easy to label Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as “sad music” and then leave it at that. But, to do so is to miss the genius of this composition. A funny and unexpected thing has happened to Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 as our calendars flipped from 1999 to the 2000s. One of the greatest trends in modern music in the past twenty years has been the coming together of classical music and electronic dance music. Orchestras the world over are now giving concerts that take the best of the classical music genre and combine it with the latest EDM technology and, as such, new life is being breathed into centuries old music which, in turn, is causing the original pieces to be re-interpreted. In 2004, a Dutch DJ named Tiesto took Barber’s “sad song” and pumped it up with techno beats and in doing so, helped to create a song that now fills listeners with euphoria. Even though Tiesto’s version of Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 is populated with synthesized thumping beats, the inner strength of Barber’s score is immediately recognizable. But, more importantly, what Tiesto managed to accomplish was to show the world that Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 is not an inherently sad song…it is an inherently emotional song, and that this emotion can be used for happiness and optimism, just as easily as it had been known for sadness and feelings of loss in the past.

So, in the videos below, I will show you a performance of this composition by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I will add a second video that shows how Barber’s version of Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was used in the movie, Platoon. Finally, we will change the feel of this music completely while viewing the joyfulness of Tiesto’s version as played at the mecca of electronic dance music festivals, Tomorrowland.

So, without further delay, here is Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as seen in the movie Platoon can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as performed by DJ Tiesto can be found here.

***The content of this blog post is the sole property of the author. This post may not be re-posted, re-blogged, copied or reproduced in any format without the express written consent of the author, TomMacInnesWriter. ©2022.

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Classical Compositions: Song #1/50: Morning Mood by Edvard Grieg.

Program Title: Edvard Grieg, Morning Mood, Opus 23….Also, part of the Peer Gynt Suites No. 1, Opus 46.

When I was still working as a teacher, one of my favourite parts of the job was reading aloud to my students. One of my favourite chapter books to read aloud was “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. There was one scene, in particular, that I always enjoyed sharing with my students. It was the scene where Charlotte, the Spider, had just completed making her egg sac. Her friend, the innocent, child-like pig named Wilbur sees the egg sac and asks Charlotte what it is. Charlotte replies that it is her “magnum opus”. When Wilbur responds with befuddlement at her grandiose choice of words, Charlotte re-frames her reply by saying the egg sac is her “best work”……..magnum, meaning magnificent and opus, meaning work or product. This example of how we can be confused or intimidated by flowery language is important as we begin our own look at the world of Classical Music because it is a world filled with many terms and phrases that may seem confusing at first, but in the end, are actually easy to understand. Hopefully, this series of posts will help re-introduce us all to music that we know and have enjoyed before. In addition, I hope that we all….me, as well as you….will all learn to navigate our way through this world competently and with greater confidence because we understand the terminology better. Classical music need not be a mysterious thing. It is Art of the highest order and can fill your heart if you let it. So, let’s take our first steps…..together. Here we go.

Let’s begin with the title of our very first composition. Today’s piece of music has a formal and an informal name. The informal name is simply, Morning Mood by Edvard Grieg. The formal name is Morning Mood, Opus 23. In Classical Music, just as with Charlotte and her egg sac, the word, opus, has a very simple meaning. In Classical Music, the term opus is used to keep track of what number composition a particular work is. In the case of Morning Mood, the fact that it is labelled as Opus 23 means that it was Grieg’s 23rd published piece of music. Simple as that. This piece of music was, also, included as part of a suite of music in a play called Peer Gynt, which, when spoken of as part of the Suite, as opposed to a stand-alone piece of music, is referred to as Opus 46. So, as this post unfolds, I will be talking about Morning Mood, Opus 23.…….Grieg’s 23rd piece of published music.

Edvard Grieg was born in Norway and is generally considered to be Norway’s greatest composer. There are statues erected in his honour, as well as schools and theatres named after him, too. Grieg came along in the late 1800s and is credited with being one of the composers who helped modernize the themes upon which Classical music compositions were written. Prior to this, much of the totality of the works created by composers was done so with religious or nationalistic themes in mind. If you know anything about Mozart and/or the Academy Award-winning movie about his life, Amadeus, then you will be aware that creating whole operas praising God was the height of fashion in civilized social circles. Well, Grieg was one of those who believed that Music, as well as Art and Literature, could all grow beyond the limitations of society’s expectations and tolerances.

Because of his philosophy on the Arts, Grieg aligned himself with other forward-thinkers. One of those people turned out to be Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is highly regarded in literary circles and is considered to be one of those who accepted the mantle of responsibility for creating thought-provoking plays as passed down by William Shakespeare. Ibsen, along with Hans Christian Andersen, is regarded as Norway’s pre-eminent writer. And so it was that Ibsen wrote an epic-style poem called Peer Gynt that was turned into a five-act play. Peer Gynt is a play told entirely in verse. It has come to symbolize the fabric of Norwegian culture in much the same way that a play like Anne of Green Gables has become part of Canada’s cultural identity. To help turn his poem into a play, Ibsen approached his friend, Edvard Grieg, and asked him to contribute some incidental music to accompany his story. ***Peer Gynt is a drama, not a musical. So, the incidental music Grieg created was intended to act as background music, as opposed to being music that the actors would sing during their scenes.

Grieg created many pieces of music for Peer Gynt but the one that has stood the test of time has been a short, three-minute piece called Morning Mood. In Peer Gynt, Morning Mood is played during a transition scene in which the main character wakes up in the morning to find that he has been abandoned by his friends and is now alone in the desert. The music that accompanies this scene was designed for flutes and oboes and, as such, it sounds light and airy when played. This airiness of sound gave a sense of unity to a scene in which a sun was rising from beyond the horizon: rays of light stretching ever upward toward the sky. Sounds, colours and emotions all going up, up, up on the stage, as well as in our hearts and minds.

I can guarantee you that all of you have heard this piece of music before. From the opening notes, you will be instantly taken back to some television show or movie that has had a transition scene in which night turns into a new day…..all the while accompanied by this little tune known as Morning Mood. So please, do yourself a favour and click on the link for this song. It will lift your spirits, just as it did over a century ago, for the audiences who watched Peer Gynt performed in Norway and, in time, all over the world. In fact, Peer Gynt was the single-most performed dramatic play in the world in 2006… the theatre world celebrated the centenary of Ibsen’s death. I am not sure if this post will end up being my magnum opus but, if it helps, even a little bit, to de-mystify some aspects of the world of Classical Music and helps everyone to realize just how popular and prevalent this music is in our everyday world then, I will be happy. For now, here is a song you all know, Morning Mood, Opus 23 by Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition, Morning Mood, Opus 23 by Edvard Grieg can be found here.

The link to a museum dedicated to the life of composer Edvard Grieg can be found here.

The link to a museum dedicated to the life of playwright Henrik Ibsen can be found here.

The link to radio station Classical 103.1, right here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, can be found here.

***Please note that the content of this post is the sole property of the author. It cannot be shared, re-posted or reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022,