Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #33/50: Symphony No.3 in E Major, Op. 56 (or, as it is also known, “Eroica”) by Ludwig van Beethoven

The stories behind the most memorable classical music compositions in history.

Do you know this man? I am willing to bet that you do.

I am willing to place a rather sizeable bet, that if I were to survey a crowd of one hundred people who claimed to know absolutely nothing about the world of classical music and asked them to name any one individual composer that they might know, the one name they would be able to come up with would be that of Ludwig van Beethoven. In a world of talented composers, Beethoven easily rates as one of the most talented of them all. But more to the point, he has created works of such importance and magnitude that even non-classical music fans can recognize their worth. The two compositions that spring most readily to mind are his 5th and 9th symphonies (which we will discuss in more detail in future posts). But, for those who admire Beethoven and who know him best, the consensus is that his most important work is a symphony that has become known simply as “Eroica”. “Eroica” translates roughly as “Heroic”. There are times when great artists rise up to meet the temper of the times in which they find themselves. This is surely the case of “Eroica”. It was a symphony composed in times that many felt were the most glorious in European history, composed for a man who Beethoven and many others first believed to be a saviour, Napoleon Bonaparte. In time, this symphony ended up causing the world to reevaluate the life’s work of one of Beethoven’s most admired contemporaries, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It also ended the Classical era of compositional style music with a declarative bang, ushering in the era of Romanticism. As if this wasn’t enough, “Eroica” is a piece of music that many claim helped to save Beethoven’s life. In short, “Eroica” changed the lives of two major composers and changed the world of classical music forever. It is simply one of the most important pieces of music ever created. This is the story of Beethoven’s “Eroica”.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven was born at the right time. Some people are lucky that way. He was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. As he grew up, he did so in the brotherly shadow of another musical child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beethoven was a full generation younger than Mozart. But Beethoven, being born into a musical family, was well aware of who Mozart was. In fact, Beethoven’s earliest days were spent in mirror image to those of Mozart. Like his musical compatriot, Beethoven’s talent was noted at a very young age. In addition, like Mozart, Beethoven had a father who pressured him relentlessly in an attempt to bring recognition to the family through the prodigy-like reputation of his child. However, that is where the similarities ended. Despite being a prodigious composer, Mozart lived most of his life in near poverty. Beethoven, on the other hand, began life as the grandson of the Kapellmeister (Musical director) of Bonn. He was afforded the most capable of mentors simply because of his family’s connections in society circles. While Mozart composed over 800 pieces of music by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, Beethoven hadn’t formally published almost any original works until he was well into adulthood. Instead, Beethoven grew up studying the works of Mozart and Hadyn with an eye to making a career out of being a classical pianist or, more succinctly, a performer of the works of others he admired. In fact, the career of Ludwig van Beethoven is generally broken down into three distinct periods. In the first phase of his career, he composed some original works, but those were mainly steeped in the classical traditions of those composers who had come before him. The period in his life prior to 1802 is best noted as being that time when he learned to be a highly trained musician. It was while emulating the greatest works of other musical geniuses that Beethoven learned how to play the piano with great skill. As he did so, that knowledge became innate and provided him with the foundation necessary to begin writing piano-based compositions in his own hand. In this formative stage of his career, he most admired the work of Mozart. When he played compositions on the piano that had been created by Mozart, Beethoven was sufficiently skilled to recognize how innovative these works were. That experience of performing Mozart’s works inspired Beethoven to trust his own instincts when it came to creating original works in the future. That future looked bright for Beethoven until 1802. That was the year he began to go deaf.

One letter, from a collection of letters that Beethoven wrote, that have become known as The Heiligenstadt Testament.

Like a dancer who becomes lame or a painter who becomes blind, losing one’s hearing can be a career-ending turn of events for a musician and composer. When Beethoven first started to turn deaf, he sought advice as to how to best deal with this situation. One of the first things he was advised to do was to move away from larger centres such as Bonn or Vienna and move to the countryside where there would naturally be less ambient noise. So, Beethoven moved to the village of Heiligenstadt. This is noteworthy because, after his death in 1827, a group of letters that he had written while in Heiligenstadt (but never mailed) was discovered. These letters became known as Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. In these letters, Beethoven disclosed that the onset of deafness had brought on a state of depression that was leading him to think suicidal thoughts. He quickly added that what allowed him to carry on was his belief in his ability to create dynamic, original Art. Beethoven stated that his entire catalogue of music up until that point now left him deeply unsatisfied. He ended off by making a vow to live with greater boldness going forward. A second group of letters was discovered. These letters were addressed to a mysterious figure referred to only as “My Immortal Beloved”. The identity of this mystery woman has never been revealed. That didn’t stop many from speculating, which led to the creation of a movie entitled “Immortal Beloved” starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. (You can watch a scene from that movie here).

Napoleon Bonaparte

As Beethoven forced himself to rise up from the depths of his despair, two important historical events happened. The first was that the French Revolution had ended, and the second was that Napoleon Bonaparte became the leader of France. Without writing an entire essay on the subject, the French Revolution was a watershed moment in world history because it helped usher in a period of reforms that in many ways formed the foundational principles of a system of governance called Democracy. After having lived under centuries of oppressive Monarchist rule, the notion that ordinary citizens might come to have a greater say in how they lived their lives was a thrilling notion to many, including to a thirty-something young man named Ludwig van Beethoven. When the Napoleonic Wars spread across Europe and into Russia, the idea that democracy might come to the entire continent was breathtaking. So, just as Beethoven was committing himself to a bolder future as a composer, the image of Napoleon Bonaparte as a liberator of the oppressed appeared before him. Beethoven channeled those feelings of admiration and hopefulness for a better tomorrow for himself and for the citizens of Europe into a new symphony that he called “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55”, or as he wrote across the top of his original manuscript, “Eroica”. He dedicated this new symphony to Napoleon.

“Eroica” was a symphony unlike any the world had seen before. Like many of the works of Mozart, Beethoven took the best parts of the classical form in which he was so well versed and turned them on their ear. “Eroica” was twice as long as any other symphony in history. But most importantly of all, Beethoven’s symphony did not rely on the usual odes to God or to nobility; instead, it laid bare the emotional story of his own life. Never before had such emotion been interwoven into the score of a symphony. When “Eroica” was first performed, audiences were confused and upset. It was too long. It was too personal. What was Beethoven trying to say anyway?! But in time, “Eroica” became well known and respected precisely because of the emotion it contained. Beethoven’s vulnerability was being displayed for all to see because a new age of personal freedoms was dawning all across the land. His emotional display was actually symbolic of the freedom that a whole continent was set to experience for themselves and enjoy. It was the dawn of a new age, and as a result, nothing less than a reinvention of classical form was called for. That’s what “Eroica” really was. It heralded a new beginning in European history by being new and fresh and completely innovative in the structure of the composition and in the substance of its musical expression.

In many ways, Beethoven didn’t do anything with “Eroica” that Mozart hadn’t done with countless compositions a generation earlier. The difference was that the time and circumstances weren’t right for Mozart to have been credited with ushering in a new era of music prior to the start of The French Revolution. In the 1760s, life in Europe was dictated by the ruling classes, and for them, the introduction of revolutionary concepts in music was not welcomed at all. This accounts in large part for why Mozart lived much of his life in poverty and why he ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave. For Beethoven, the rampant optimism that existed across central Europe, in particular, as the 1800s began was the perfect opportunity to have something as new and inventive as “Eroica” accepted by audiences (which it eventually was). His “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” changed the way composers approached their craft from that point onward. This symphony is said to have initiated a period in classical music known as the Romantic Era. This era is characterized by a general acceptance of the idea that composers are free to follow their muse when it comes to creating new works. They are no longer forced to follow rigid parameters as established by those who first practiced their craft centuries prior.

The original manuscript to “Eroica” minus one word that had been unceremoniously erased by Beethoven, himself.

As time progressed, “Eroica” underwent one fundamental change and had another aspect of it endure and become symbolic of Beethoven’s genius as a composer through to these modern times today. The one thing that ended up changing was that Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon. Specifically, when Beethoven found out that Napoleon had unilaterally declared himself to be Emperor (i.e., singular ruler with authority over all other citizens or, in other words, the opposite of being a democratic ruler who is elected by the people and who serves at their will), he angrily withdrew the part of “Eroica” where he had dedicated it to Napoleon. The original manuscript now bore a hole where the name “Napoleon” had once proudly stood.

But over time, one section of “Eroica” has emerged to stand as one of the great moments in musical history. In the second movement of “Eroica”, Beethoven included a three-minute funeral march. Some claim that this three-minute section of music is the saddest and most sombre music ever created. So much so that it has been played as the official funeral music of such public figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, German General Erwin Rommel, composer Felix Mendelssohn and most poignantly, at the funerals of the twelve Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

When personal challenges present themselves we, as humans, can either face them or flee from them. Deafness is an almost catastrophic challenge for anyone who bases their life on arranging sounds in ways that move the hearts and minds of others. That “Eroica” was just the beginning of the most prolific chapter of Beethoven’s professional career stands as proof of his motivation and of his creative genius. We will delve more into how he managed to make such beautiful and important music while existing in a world of silence in future posts when we examine his 5th and 9th symphonies. Until then, please enjoy this incredibly innovative and important composition (especially, the very moving second part which you should be able to find time stamped in the video’s description section). Ludwig van Beethoven is the world’s most recognizable name in classical music history for a reason. “Eroica” is the reason many consider him the most important and talented composer as well. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” or, as it is better known, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here. ***The funeral march begins at the 16:13 mark of the symphony if you wish to only listen to that proton of the entire symphony.

The link to the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt can be found here.

The link to the official website for Heiligenstadt, Austria (where Beethoven stayed when he first began to develop deafness) can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music station…Classical 103.1….streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #32/50: Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

As mentioned in the two previous posts (which you can read here and here), the period from the very late 1800s up through the 1920s was a time of great advancement in the world of The Arts all across the world. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin were transforming the world of film. Frank Lloyd Wright and others from the Prairie School of Design were changing the way people imagined buildings could look and function. As painters, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso were producing astoundingly original work in comparison to their predecessors. As we have seen previously in this series, Igor Stravinsky and his Russian compatriots Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were busy reinventing the idea of what classical composition and ballet could and should be. In the world of dance, no one was taking greater advantage of those artistically expansive times than a woman named Martha Graham. Not only did Martha Graham help advance the notion of what emotive dance performance could look like, her techniques have become the standard by which other dancers from around the world have learned their craft for over a century now. Furthermore, her importance as a role model for women in many other fields cannot be overstated. Even though she rose to prominence during a time of cultural enlightenment, she did so while still having to navigate the corridors of power occupied mainly by men. Her success as a dancer, teacher and power broker in the world of The Arts served as an inspiration for generations of women who followed in her wake.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) performs ‘Lamentation,’ 1935. (Photo by Barbara Morgan/Getty Images)

As Martha Graham established herself as the preeminent dancer and choreographer in the world of American Dance in the 1920s, one of her greatest skills had nothing to do with music and movement but, instead, had everything to do with her ability to build relationships. Graham had a wonderful ability to connect with a wide variety of people who could help bring her artistic visions to fruition. Some of her networking skills involved those in the world of finance, whether bankers, well-heeled society types who could act as patrons of The Arts and/or government officials who could be influenced to pass legislation favourable to her endeavours and to The Arts, in general. Graham enjoyed working with artists, architects, engineers and graphic designers of all types so as to give her productions the “look” that would make them extraordinary. Needless to say, Graham was a friend, mentor, critic and inspiration to a league of dancers and musicians as well. One of Martha Graham’s greatest networking attributes is that she was blind to issues of colour, gender, religion and so on. She would work with anyone who believed in The Arts and who approached life with the belief that anything was possible when one truly believed it could be so. One example of Martha Graham in action can be found in the story of “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. Many critics and experts point to this composition as possessing the quintessential “American sound”. Let’s take a closer look at a piece of music that holds a rightful place in the great American Songbook. This is the story of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Erick Hawkins, and Martha Graham at the premiere of 201cAppalachian Spring,201d 1944. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It is difficult for many of us to appreciate what it must feel like to have survived a global conflict such as World War I. As the War ended in 1918, much of the anxiety and self-sacrifice that so characterized the people of many nations gave way to a feeling of unbridled joy and optimism for what lay ahead. Much of the time and money and effort that had previously been devoted to the war effort was now unleashed in the opposite direction toward commerce, scientific advancement and toward The Arts. The Roaring Twenties, as the decade that followed WWI came to be called, was a time teeming with possibilities. One of those who understood the potential for good that existed at this time was Martha Graham. Not only did Graham believe that the 1920s was a wonderful boom time for The Arts, but she believed in her heart that The Arts had an important role in helping America and the rest of the world to heal and move forward in a positive way. One way in which Graham sought to sow the seeds of creativity and help to develop a sense of national identity in America was by commissioning a new ballet in which she would star. This ballet would not only act as a showcase for new and innovative ways to communicate to the world through dance, it would also set a tone for a new spirit of pride in America. In order to finance this new work, Graham teamed up with a woman named Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was known as a promoter and patron of The Arts. For the designing of her set, she turned to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. For the musical score, Martha Graham recruited Aaron Copland.

Sculptor and Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi

Aaron Copland was a composer who had studied abroad in Paris under the musical direction of a woman named Nadia Boulanger. Like Graham, Nadia Boulanger developed a well-deserved reputation as an excellent music instructor at a time in our social history when it was not all that common for men to take instruction from a woman. But Boulanger had such a vast knowledge of the personalities, repertoire and musical techniques of all of the major classical composers in history that she was respected without regard for her gender. She was simply the best instructor available, and so students such as Copland, Philip Glass and even Quincy Jones sat by her side and absorbed her great wisdom. Aaron Copland came into contact with Martha Graham during a period in his career when he had tried various styles of composition but had yet to develop the style that would make him famous in the annals of American music. At that time, Copland found that he could master various technical styles of composition but that he felt those pieces of music were not in sync with the mood of the nation. Thus, when Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge approached him with regard to their desire to commission a new ballet score that would come to define America as it felt in the 1920s, Copland felt as though a creative door had opened for him. The vision that Martha Graham wished to bring to the stage was exactly the connection with an audience Copland was desiring to achieve with his music. So, he immediately set to work.

Aaron Copland at home in his studio

As he allowed himself to think about the mythological idea of what America was, he started to conjure images in his mind of the vastness of the Great Plains, of open sky and of mountains harbouring cool, clear springs of water. To Copland, the openness and vastness of the land symbolized the vastness of its potential as a nation. Thus, he set to work creating a composition that sought to replicate that majestic vista in sound. The result of his efforts was a new work called “Appalachian Spring”. As the following years unfolded, “Appalachian Spring” ended up becoming two distinct works. First of all, it became the score of the ballet that Martha Graham had commissioned and ended up dancing to. The story told in the ballet was of a young couple arriving on the Great Plains to begin a new life as husband and wife. There were other characters living nearby who imparted their advice about life in a new land. The young couple accepted the dangers inherent in this new chapter of their lives but believed that through love and hard work, their dreams could be realized and that a better tomorrow was theirs to be had. In many ways, Graham’s ballet was a visual manifestation of the “American Dream”. Copland’s score was slow and sweeping. Coupled with Graham’s expressive manifestation of good old American values, “Appalachian Spring” became an immediate sensation. In time, Copland was asked to modify his score so that it could be performed by orchestras without the ballet component being necessary. So, Aaron Copland tweaked his score and made it possible for chamber-style groups to perform “Appalachian Spring”, too. There is a jazzy component to “Appalachian Spring” which is reflective of how prominent a genre of music Jazz was becoming in the 1920s. Even though the sound of Jazz doesn’t usually cause images of the Great Plains to appear in one’s mind, Copland combined the two in a very original and innovative manner and helped to create a new soundscape for a nation. Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his efforts.

All through the course of my life, I have witnessed the ebbs and flows of opinion with regard to the value of The Arts in our society. Much of this debate concerns the investment of public funds (in the form of taxes) into having The Arts taught in our public schools. It shouldn’t surprise any of my regular readers to know that I value The Arts highly. There is no debate for me regarding their importance. I firmly believe that anything in life that can touch your heart and stimulate your mind is something that possesses great value. The Arts do that. Not every painting needs to be your cup of tea; not every song needs to make you feel something, either. But what The Arts do provide is a way of looking at the world that holds the potential to inspire individuals and whole countries. It is not without reason that Fourth of July festivities in the U.S. traditionally end with a concert by The Boston Pops or some other orchestra and that, as part of that concert, a piece of music called “Appalachian Spring” is played. When done well, The Arts can uplift the hearts of everyone who sees or hears the manifestation of that creative expression. We should all be grateful to the Martha Grahams and Aaron Coplands of the world for their efforts to prove the one great value of The Arts above all else…they show us the way forward toward a better tomorrow. And when there is Hope, there is Life.

The link to the video for the composition “Appalachian Spring” (ballet) by Aaron Copland can be found here. The Chamber version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Aaron Copland can be found here.

The link to the official website for Martha Graham can be found here.

The link to the official website for designer Isamu Noguchi can be found here. ***Apparently, if you Google “Noguchi table”, you can buy one from Walmart. I kid you not. Go ahead. Try it for yourself.

The link to the official website for Arts Patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #31/50: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock (7450793a) The cemetery of San Michele is located in the homonymous island in the Venetian Lagoon, located between Venice and Murano The San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy – 22 Nov 2016

The city of Venice, Italy is divided into six districts or sestieri. The northernmost of these is called Cannaregio. This district got its name because it contained the main canal that formed a transportation corridor in and out of the city proper to the mainland. Cannaregio is Italian for “Royal Canal”. In a lagoon just outside of Cannaregio lies the Isle of San Michele. Several centuries ago, the Isle of San Michele was designated for use as a cemetery. Over the years, many famous people have been buried there. One of those whose gravesite can be found there is Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Not far from his gravesite is another one that contains the remains of Russian Arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Forever united in life, they remain united in death as well. Today we shall learn the story of how they came to know each other and how that relationship resulted in one of the most famous moments in modern music history: the Paris Riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s symphonic opera, “The Rite of Spring”.

Sergei Diaghilev

In the late 1800s, the Diaghilev family was one of the most prominent families in all of Russia when it came to their involvement in The Arts. They hosted concerts at their estate every other Tuesday. They funded new ballets, symphonies and exhibits by all of the most popular writers, poets, painters and sculptors that Russia had to offer. In this environment, young Sergei Diaghilev grew up. He was encouraged to learn to play the piano and was giving public recitals of his own original works by the time he was only fifteen years of age. But more than possessing a love of music, Sergei Diaghilev possessed an amazing ability to organize the exhibits and concerts that happened at his family’s estate. In time, Diaghilev took his organizational talents beyond the walls of his home and began organizing concerts and art exhibitions throughout Russia. In doing so, he came into contact with a large group of talented young dancers, composers, writers and artists. In order to help promote the work of his new-found friends, Diaghilev founded an influential Arts magazine called Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Diaghilev became known as one of Russia’s leading promoters of The Arts, which earned him the protection and support of Czar Nicholas II. In time, Diaghilev wanted to extend the reach of Russian Arts so he began organizing art exhibits in Paris, France. When those went well, Diaghilev decided to bring Russian music into the cultural heart of Europe. To do this, he contacted one of the young, rising stars of Russian classical music, his friend Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky accepted Diaghilev’s commission and began work on a symphonic opera/ballet that came to be called “The Rite of Spring”. What happened next did nothing less than change the course of modern music.

As the early 1900s progressed, the Arts scene in Russia was filled with young artists in all disciplines who possessed a thorough grounding in Arts theories and traditions but who also wished to bring their own unique vision to bear in the new works that they were creating. It was a time of great creative innovation in the Arts, regardless of the discipline in question. Igor Stravinsky, along with fellow composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, formed the new vanguard of compositional thought when it came to creating symphonies, operas and ballets. Stravinsky believed that his work should be steeped in history but performed with unbridled imagination. Thus, the creative vision of Igor Stravinsky seemed a perfect match for the promotional vision of Sergei Diaghilev.

In composing “The Rite of Spring”, Igor Stravinsky drew upon cultural folklore for a story about the coming of spring and the rebirth of nature that accompanies the change of seasons. As you may remember from a previous post (which you can read here), the song “Carol of the Bells” was originally based upon a Ukrainian folk song called “The Little Swallow”, which also heralded the coming of spring and offered blessings for a good growing season and harvest to follow. So, by tapping into the coming of spring as the foundation for his new work, Stravinsky was bringing forth one of Russia’s most cherished and time-honoured aspects of its folklore. There was nothing controversial in this at all.

Composer Igor Stravinsky

However, Igor Stravinsky had no intention of simply creating a peaceful, pastoral composition for his own debut in Paris. In his mind, this was his golden opportunity to make a bold artistic statement. So, Igor Stravinsky decided to create a musical work called a symphonic opera ballet. What this means is that his work would have a unified theme running over two acts. The first act would be a traditional symphony and opera combination. In the second act, the visual element would change into a ballet. Both acts would tell a continuous story about the birth of spring. As he began his work, Stravinsky surrounded himself with the most creative people he could find. Thus, Maria Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were hired as dancers and choreographers. The stage design and costumes were made by a man named Nicholas Roerich. The world of opera in Paris at the time was one in which tradition and refinement were the orders of the day. However, these young Russian artists had something else in mind when they created all aspects of “The Rite of Spring”. It was decided early on that this production would turn everything the world knew about music and dance inside out and upside down.

These dancers don’t look like ballet dancers to me! They didn’t look that way to Parisians, either.

With the luxury of retrospection, the term avant-garde would come to be coined to describe what Igor Stravinsky and his friends unleashed upon an unsuspecting Parisian audience that day. There was almost nothing about “The Rite of Spring” that conformed to any preconceived notions of what a symphony, opera or ballet should be like. Stravinsky believed his work to be grand and glorious. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini, who was in attendance that evening, called it “a cacophony of noise”. The other members of the audience didn’t know what to make of a score in which notes clashed and competed for attention instead of working together in harmony as they were used to hearing. “The Rite of Spring” was not what they were expecting, which was exactly what Igor Stravinsky and friends had intended. Although this debut performance of “The Rite of Spring” was met with boos and jeers and with objects hurled toward the stage (which resulted in the Paris police being summoned), the concert never stopped for a single second. In the end, what saved Stravinsky’s performance, as well as Diaghilev’s promotional reputation, was that there were enough savvy Parisians there who came to realize that what, at first, seemed to be nothing more than noisy confusion was actually a revolutionary way of producing music as Art. While traditionalists balked at what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and company had achieved, history would render a more flattering judgment. “The Rite of Spring” is now viewed as a turning point in the world of modern music because it was the moment when someone proved that the “rules” of musical composition needn’t be confining and limiting. In fact, the exact opposite was possible. The foundational aspects of composing operas and ballets could be used to springboard in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Throughout the history of music, there have been moments of courage such as this (think about Bob Dylan going “electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival). Doing what is comfortable and expected is often the easier route for creators to take when creating new work. It takes courage to go against the grain on principle, but that is what Sergei Diaghilev believed was the necessary next step for Russian Arts at home and around the world. His sponsorship of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal work was to be just the beginning of a brave new world for Art everywhere. It was a revolutionary idea. But then came the real Revolution back home in Russia, and everything changed for people like Diaghilev and all those involved in the Russian Arts community.

As we saw in a previous post, the rise of Lenin and then Stalin to the top political post in Russia cast a pall over everyone who had enjoyed free rein under the Imperialist regime of Czar Nicholas II. Those who opted to remain in Russia were expected to follow the exacting dictates of Josef Stalin or, as happened to Dimtri Shostakovich, face the consequences. Personal creative freedom quickly gave way to The Arts being used to promote patriotic nationalism. Directors of The Bolshoi Ballet stopped performing anything remotely artistically innovative and original and instead, only put on shows that were deemed to be “good Russian productions”. If you stayed in Russia, like Sergei Prokofiev did, you created new work that conformed to what was expected and nothing more. Avoiding the wrath of those in positions of power was now the primary motivating factor behind most artistic decisions made by the Arts community in Russia under Stalin.

Not long after Stalin assumed control, Sergei Diaghilev was summoned home. He refused to return. As a consequence, he was officially condemned as a “bourgeois intellectual” in perpetuity, meaning he could never return to his homeland while Stalin was in power. Now considered an “artistic refugee”, Diaghilev centered his promotional efforts around The Ballets Russes and lived out the remainder of his days arranging for new works to be brought to international stages. One of the consequences of living in exile was that acquiring financial backing became difficult. He was no longer able to count on the support of patrons such as Czar Nicholas II (who had been killed during the Revolution). One of the people he would come into conflict with because of financial considerations was his friend, Igor Stravinksy.

A poster advertising a recording of the concert Stravinsky conducted at Massey Hall at age 85.

Like Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky refused his own summons back to Russia. He knew that he could never put the necessary shackles on his creativity that would be required in order to return home. So, he remained abroad for the remainder of his days as well. Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s income dwindled to almost nothing after losing access to Diaghilev’s patronage. Diaghilev never wanted to cut off Stravinsky’s income, but he could barely afford to mount the small productions that he was doing, let alone continue to provide his friend with an allowance. As a result, Igor Stravinsky spent the rest of his days adrift. He lived in Switzerland for a while and then moved with his family into the home of Coco Chanel in France. While there, he agreed to sell the rights to all of his piano-based compositions to the Pleyel Piano Company for inclusion in their line of player pianos. (It was a Pleyel piano that Frederic Chopin had shipped to the island of Majorca when he stayed there with writer/partner, George Sand. You can read a post about that here). Eventually, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. His final opera featured the poet Dylan Thomas as librettist. Igor Stravinsky’s final public concert was as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Massey Hall. It is a small world.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

As the final wish of both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, they were buried in the “Russian corner” of the cemetery on the Isle of San Michele near Venice, Italy. The Isle of San Michele is now their home. Even in death, the pair continue to make bold artistic statements.

The link to the video of the composition “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Les Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Isle of San Michele can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keeping’ It Classy: Composition #30/50: Dance of the Knights by Sergei Prokofiev

Most weekday mornings I pour myself a hot cup of tea, fire up my laptop and begin to write the words that you read each day. I do so with a clear mind and a brave heart. I try my best to tell you stories that are interesting and true. I answer to no one (except my wife, of course) and my copy editor (who shakes her head daily at how feeble my grasp of proper punctuation and the rules of grammar actually seem to be). Not once since I have started writing on this blog has anything I have said caused there to be a knock upon my door by strong men with billy clubs in their hands. In that regard I am extremely lucky. Not every writer or artist in the world has the freedom to express themselves as I do each and every day. For some, what they create can sometimes be a matter of life and death. In a perfect world, freedom of expression should be an inalienable right for all of us. But all throughout history there are examples of people who have spoken their truth to power or simply undertaken an act of creativity and have found themselves persecuted by the authorities as a result. Today’s story is but one example.

Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich

In the past century there have been three composers who are generally regarded as being the giants of the classical music scene in Russia. Those three composers are Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. All three men enjoyed periods of fame and respect throughout their careers. They all produced ballets and symphonies that were praised for their originality, creativity and flawless musical construction. But all three composers also plied their trade during one of the most dangerous periods in Russian history, which was the reign of Stalin as the undisputed head of the Russian Government. Josef Stalin’s reign was known for many things, but chief among them was the constant purging from the ranks of government or society of anyone viewed as potentially posing a threat to Stalin’s hold on power. Stalin demanded absolute obedience from everyone in Russia. For those who displeased him in any way, their lives would never be the same again.

In the decade or so after the Russian Revolution had come to pass, composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev enjoyed great artistic freedom. Their symphonies were played in concert halls all across Russia and the world. Their ballets were danced by the best dancers that the Bolshoi Ballet Company had in their employ. Government officials heaped praise upon them. They all received medals of distinction and were granted positions of authority on cultural boards throughout the country. Those were heady days for Russian classical music and the Arts. But things changed as Stalin assumed control of the government and began his systematic purging of the ranks. A chill swept through the land. Suddenly, people began to change their behaviour so as to avoid offending Stalin. Government policies were changed to protect his position and to promote his views. Governing boards and committees were purged of anyone who didn’t follow Stalin’s decrees to the letter. It was not uncommon for those who fell out of favour to simply disappear to a prison gulag or to end up shot. Of course, there were those in Russian society who failed to heed the warning signs because they felt that what was happening to others could never happen to them, thinking they possessed some sort of immunity based upon past accomplishments. One who felt that way was composer Dimitri Shostakovich. His story has a lot to do with how today’s featured composition, “The Dance of the Knights” by compatriot Sergei Prokofiev, came to be.

Josef Stalin (in centre of photo) having a night at the opera.

Like Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich had enjoyed a long run of success in the Russian Arts community. From his earliest days as a young boy, Shostakovich had shown a proclivity toward music and, more specifically, toward creating compositions that used music in new and original ways. Russian audiences waited with bated breath for each new ballet because they were guaranteed to see something new and innovative with every performance. However, politics was soon to become a factor in ways that Shostakovich could barely even begin to imagine. There came a time in the 1930s when Josef Stalin decided to personally attend performances of all current ballets, symphonies and plays. By this time, his reputation for cruelty was well known, and a shudder went through the entire Russian Arts community. Some composers and theatre directors automatically altered their performances in an attempt to please Stalin and survive his visit. Dimitri Shostakovich was not of that mind. He performed his latest ballet as created. The ballet was filled with light and colour and glorious music that was used in brilliant and imaginative ways. The ballet was so unique in the history of Russian ballets that Stalin did not fully understand it and grew frustrated as the performance went on. He ended up leaving before the third act was finished. Dimitri Shostakovich, who was very proud of his work, watched Stalin exit the theatre. According to eyewitnesses, he turned completely pale. His work had displeased Stalin. The repercussions for Shostakovich were immediate. A few days later he was publicly critiqued in the national newspaper, Pravda. The headline simply and devastatingly read: “Muddle Instead of Music!” Shostakovich fell into public disgrace at once. He was stripped of all committee appointments. He lost all commissions. No theatre or music hall would perform his work anywhere in the country. All other composers and other members of the Russian Arts community separated themselves from him. To further make his message clear that all Russian Art must adhere to strict nationalist policies, Stalin refused to imprison or execute Shostakovich. Instead, he publicly centred him out and demanded that he reform his ways and submit to Stalin’s authority by creating approved works in the future. For someone like Dimitri Shostakovich, having his creative freedom curtailed was akin to a death sentence. For a while, he kept a low profile and attempted to write some symphonies on the sly. But word got out that he was writing again, and Stalin demanded to hear this new work. By the time he was summoned, Shostakovich was a beaten man. He knew he could not tempt fate twice. So, before meeting with Stalin, Dimitri Shostakovich altered his new symphony. He streamlined it and simplified it in ways that he felt Stalin would be able to understand. He engaged in self-censorship as an act of self-preservation, and as a result, Dimitri Shostakovich lived to see another day. In fact, as history has a way of demonstrating its fluid nature, in time Shostakovich’s image was formally rehabilitated by the same government that had attacked him so unmercifully. But, when he was first attacked for his work, other composers took notice. One who managed to marry pragmatism with Art was Sergei Prokofiev. This is his story.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev

In the early days after the Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev was like many in the Arts community. He felt empowered to unleash his creative vision onto the world. In searching for a grand project upon which to build an entirely new ballet, he discovered that there had never been a full rendering of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before. Even though this was an English play, Prokofiev was confident that Russian audiences would have been aware of it and would be receptive to seeing it performed in Russian on their own stages across the land. So he set about creating a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s story of doomed lovers…well, except for one thing…in his ballet, the lovers were not doomed. Sergei Prokofiev took it upon himself to change the ending and make it a happy one instead. In fact, he even added an additional scene at the end that included a celebratory May Day parade. He created an entirely original score for the ballet, which included one composition entitled “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64”. It was to be played the first time the Montagues and Capulets run into each other in the marketplace prior to the costume ball later that evening, where Juliet and Romeo would see each other for the first time. “The Dance of the Knights” is bold and brassy and conveys a sense of foreboding, as one might expect when two rival groups come into view in the same space. As time has gone on, “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” has become the most well known and well-liked composition of Prokofiev’s career. But, back in the time when he was first putting his ballet together, Dimitri Shostakovich’s public shaming was unfolding in real time. Suddenly the Arts community all across Russia was hurriedly re-examining everything it was promoting and performing. It was certainly not a time to be taking audacious artistic gambles. So, those around Sergei Prokofiev implored him to revise his version of Romeo and Juliet so that it fell into line with Stalin’s rigid vision. Being a creator, Prokofiev balked. But quickly enough, he was informed that the Bolshoi Ballet were refusing to perform it out of fear for what the reaction would be. Prokofiev believed in his artistic vision, but he was also a practical enough man to see what was happening to Shostakovich and realized that it would probably end up happening to him, too. So, Sergei Prokofiev censored himself and revised his ballet. In fact, just to add some insurance so that he could be sure of Stalin’s reaction, he debuted his new ballet in the Czech theatre in Brno. Once it was met with approval there, the newly revised ballet was performed in Russia.

While Dimitri Shostakovich was put through the process of public shaming and rehabilitation, Sergei Prokofiev emerged relatively intact through it all. He learned to temper his artistic enthusiasms and tailor his work to suit the formal policies of the government. Consequently, Sergei Prokofiev remained gainfully employed for the majority of his career as a composer. As someone who can afford the luxury of idealism, I would hope that everyone would understand and appreciate the importance of freedom of expression in a functioning society. But, as history has repeatedly shown, it is the artists and the creative thinkers who are almost always the first to fall under the hammer blows of repressive regimes all over the world. One of the hallmarks of Art is that it is not just a product to be viewed in a gallery or listened to from a stage. Art is a way of thinking about life. It is about using your imagination to see the world in new and different ways. It is about being able to reason without fear. So when you listen to “The Dance of the Knights”, with its tremendous, forceful sense of foreboding woven into the fabric of the score, know that Prokofiev wasn’t just talking about a scene from a Shakespearean play. This composition endures for a reason. That reason is because he was really talking about life and Art. He was talking about us. All of us. Freedom of expression is a gift to be cherished.

The link to the video for the composition “Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

The link to an official website for Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #29/50: The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach

In order to appreciate the magnitude of what The Well-Tempered Clavier represents, we must first spend a few moments discussing the concept of language. Whether we are examining the minute aspects of our oral conversations or the words, letters and punctuation that make up what you see on the screen before you or the notes that you hear when you listen to music, in essence what we are describing is language. If you were to pare the term “language” down to its most basic meaning, you would say that language is a system that organizes sounds and ascribes meaning to those sounds in ways that we can appreciate and understand. For example, as children grow up, they are inundated with sounds. We sing, we speak and we make nonsense sounds to them all in the hope that one day we will be able to communicate with them easily and effectively so that we both can understand each other perfectly. Learning to communicate and become a literate human being is one of the grandest accomplishments in all of human existence, and it is all made possible because we, as humans, value the importance of sounds. It is also possible because, over time, our spoken sounds have evolved into words which, in turn, have become organized and assigned meanings which we all accept and understand. This organization of words in vehicles such as dictionaries allows there to be a standardized way of approaching language when used in the form of words. From this standardized organization of words comes everything from the glorious language of Shakespeare to the minimalist language of texting.

You can buy your own copy of the work that many consider to be the “Bible” of Music

But one of the most important aspects of accepting the notion that something like music can be thought of as language, too, is that language is not restricted to mere words. Language is an organized approach to understanding and using sounds in ways that convey meaning and emotion. The language of reading this post may be words and punctuation. The language of music can be found in tones and notes and tempos. One need only to think of the theme music to the movie Jaws to understand how much emotion and understanding can be conveyed via the proper arrangement of tones and notes and chords. So today we are going to spend some time talking about one of the single most important and influential “books” ever created in the world of music. That “book” or guide is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Follow along as we discover how Bach organized sound for the world of music just as people like Samuel Johnson organized words in dictionaries.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach grew up in the 1700s. He was the youngest of ten children in his family. By the time he turned ten, both his mother and father had passed away. With no parental figure to look after him, young Johann was taken in by his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was already a man by the time his youngest brother came to stay with him. The eldest Bach son worked as a church organist and spent much time exposing Johann Sebastian to the music that was played in churches at the time, as well as instructing him in matters of theology, the Arts and Sciences, along with politics. Because Johann Sebastian Bach spent much of his formative years in church buildings and was focussed on the music played there, he developed a keen sense of sound and the acoustical qualities that these churches possessed and how that impacted the volume/tone at which his brother could most effectively play. In his spare time, young Johann copied the sheet music that his brother owned through the church and began to practice playing on various keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, the clavichord, the pianoforte and the organ. It was not too long before Johann began to earn a reputation as being a skilled player like his brother. Not only did Johann Sebastian Bach become a better player of keyboard instruments, but he found that he was becoming able to hear sounds differently, more intensively than those around him. This led Johann Sebastian Bach to start offering constructive criticism to his brother and the church choir when it came to the pitch and tone of their singing and his brother’s playing of the organ. As Johann matured into a young man in his own right, he was granted a series of increasingly important positions in churches and royal courts in the role of kapellmeister, or musical director of a church or choir. In these roles, Bach was in charge of creating his own music and performing it in ways that met his exacting specifications. In addition to his duties as kapellmeister, Bach also began to tutor music students. He was a demanding taskmaster and soon developed a reputation for helping to turn out accomplished players who were well schooled in the fundamentals of playing keyboard-based instruments. As part of his desire to help his students understand the importance of proper sound, Bach decided to create a guidebook of sorts that would codify these sounds and set a standard for anyone else that followed afterwards. This book took several years to create and became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The dedication page of the original manuscript for The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach dedicated it to his students because he always meant this work to be a teaching tool.

Breaking down the title of his book, the word clavier means keyboard and refers to those instruments listed above such as the harpsichord and so on that are played with keys and/or some sort of combination of pedals and keys. The term well-tempered refers to the sound an instrument makes after it has been played for a while and is broken in as we say today. A well-tempered sound is a sound that is true and in the proper key and played with the proper tone. A well-tempered note also is dependent upon the exact instrument being used. For example, a pianoforte can exist with slight variations between it and another pianoforte based on the person or company that manufactured it. Perhaps a different form of wood was used or the hammer design was slightly altered during the manufacturing process. The end result would be a pianoforte that emitted tones that were slightly different, even though the keys and pedals being used were exactly the same. Thus, sounds not only had to be acoustically correct for the environment in which they were being played, they had to be correct for the instrument being used. Because there were so many variables in existence, Bach found the need to codify exactly what the proper sound should be for each major and minor key regardless of the instrument or performance location. So, in his guidebook, he created compositions in the form of preludes and fugues that covered all tones and scales known to the world. Specifically, he created 48 compositions that, if practiced and played well, would help the composer know how to properly tune his instrument for the setting in which they found themselves. As it turned out, The Well-Tempered Clavier was the very first attempt at organizing musical sounds in a standardized way. The universality of Bach’s efforts has helped every musician of note who followed in his wake. The book is considered to be one of, if not the most important musical document ever created.

From what I have read in Chasing Chopin by Annie LaFarge, I believe that Chopin’s copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier is in the glass case above the chair next to the piano.

A short but direct example of its influence can be found in a book I read a year or so ago called Chasing Chopin by Annik LaFarge. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the life and times of pianist Frederic Chopin. But it is also where I learned about the manufacturing process that caused pianos to sound unique from one another and of how completely absorbed in each minute note composers such as Chopin actually were. From this book I also learned a second fact about Chopin that relates to Bach and specifically to this post. Apparently, for many years, Frederic Chopin was involved in a platonic yet loving relationship with the writer George Sand. (George Sand was the pen name of author and journalist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil). Chopin and Sand lived together platonically for several years in Paris. Their relationship was mutually beneficial as they both understood the desire for artistic expression that the other possessed. Consequently, they were able to support each other in ways that uniquely helped each achieve success in their creative endeavours. Eventually, it was decided that they would travel together to the island of Majorca and would share a monastery where they would continue with their work. It was felt that the more exotic location would inspire each in new and important ways. In Chopin’s case, he had a piano manufactured for him and shipped across the ocean specifically for his work on Marjorca. When packing for the trip, he took only one book with him. It was Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Using Bach’s book for inspiration and guidance, Frederic Chopin (who was already a well-seasoned and accomplished composer) created his own set of 23 preludes and fugues that covered all major and minor scales. The monastery in which Sand and Chopin lived is now a museum. In that museum there is a display dedicated to each artist. In the display dedicated to showcasing the work of Chopin, there sits the copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier he used to create his own masterwork.

In the link below, I will introduce you to the first composition that is included in Bach’s guidebook. It is entitled “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Major”. Not surprisingly, the second entry is entitled, “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Minor”. On YouTube there are many varieties of music you can listen to when you search for the term The Well-Tempered Clavier. There is everything from each of the individual compositions, all the way to many examples of the complete 48-composition set being played in one sitting. I am going to simply give you access to the first composition Bach created for The Well-Tempered Clavier, but if you want to see how each piece changes as he goes through the minor and major scales, feel free to explore the entire 48-piece set at your leisure. For now, here is the first composition that helped lay the groundwork for the codification of musical sounds. From this one composition comes everything we know about music that followed throughout time. This reminds me of a short joke by comedian Steven Wright that goes something like, “The world is getting smaller every day, but still, I wouldn’t want to clean it”. Imagine someone having the audacity to think to organize and codify all of the tones, notes and chords that existed in the world of music. Bach did that with The Well-Tempered Clavier. The majesty of such an endeavour truly boggles my tiny mind, but I am most grateful that he took the time to do it. His accomplishment means that the music that I love and you love was made possible in the centuries that followed. I would be curious to know how many modern musicians have their own copies of Bach’s book? I bet that number would surprise us all. As someone who loves language and music, I salute you Johann Sebastian Bach. Your efforts at creating The Well-Tempered Clavier are gratefully appreciated.

The link to the video for the composition “Book 1, 1.Prelude in C Major” written by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.

The link to a museum dedicated to the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.

The link to the museum in Majorca where George Sand and Frederic Chopin stayed for a while can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station, Classical FM 103.1, streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #28/50: O Mio Babbino Caro by Giacomo Puccini from the Opera, Gianni Schicchi

O Mio Babuino Caro

“O Mio Babbino Caro” is one of the most famous arias in opera history. It was written by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini for his one-act opera called Gianni Schicchi in 1918. Gianni Schicchi, in turn, was written as a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano and was based upon a scene in the famous narrative poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The scene that Dante Alighieri was referring to was, in turn, based upon a real historical event known as the Death of Buoso Donati. Today’s post is the story of a love song sung from the heart by a young woman who has fallen in love with a man she can probably never be with because of her social status as a commoner, while he comes from upper class circles. It is the story of the lengths a father will go to make his child happy. At the same time, it is a comedy about the social mores of the time in 17th century Italy and the politics of a society constructed on class distinctions. Of all of Puccini’s operas, Gianni Schicchi is not one of his most well known and would probably have faded into oblivion if not for the universal appeal of a child’s desperate cry for help from her father sung in the form of an aria called “O Mio Babbino Caro”. Please join me as we find out how it all came to be.

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi was known as the Father of Italian Opera. He was a legendary figure who did much over the course of his lifetime to define what Italian opera was. As he grew older, a search was conducted by those who wished to continue his work. This search was designed to find an heir apparent to succeed him after his death. The thinking was that a contest would be held and aspiring young composers would be invited to submit their own original operas for consideration. The winner of this contest would then be granted the opportunity to apprentice under Verdi while he was still alive and then carry on his artistic vision for Italian opera after his death. (This contest was discussed in an earlier post in this series that you can read about here). The contest was won by a composer named Pietro Mascagni whose opera contained the very beautiful composition “Cavalleria Rusticana”. Unfortunately for Mascagni, he was never able to scale the artistic heights he managed to achieve when he wrote “Cavalleria Rusticana”. He was granted opportunities to create new operas and have them staged at the famous La Scala opera house, but all of his subsequent work ended in disappointment and failure. However, at the time of the original contest to find Verdi’s successor, Mascagni shared an apartment with another young composer named Giacomo Puccini. Puccini entered the same contest that was won by Mascagni and came in second place. The judges were suitably impressed by Puccini’s attempt at a one-act opera and invited him to write a new opera for the La Scala stage as well. Unlike Mascagni, Puccinni’s new opera was a success. Because of that success, he was granted even more opportunities to showcase his budding talent. Before long, he had a half-dozen operas under his belt, which allowed others to begin to view him as a worthy successor to Giuseppe Verdi. In time, Puccini created some of opera’s greatest works such as La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Puccini not only continued Verdi’s traditions when it came to Italian opera, but he expanded upon them and is considered to be one of the first to create operas that portrayed realistic storylines (as opposed to being about God or Kings). While considered a minor opera by his standards, one of Puccini’s realistic stories was told in an opera entitled Gianni Schicchi.

From Gianni Schicchi, the Donati family gather beside patriarch Buoso Donati’s bedside.

Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi was named after a real person who existed in Italy during the 12th century. The real Gianni Schicchi was a man who became involved in one of the first great swindles in Italian history. The story was that there lived a wealthy aristocratic man named Buoso Donati. As Donati approached death, his family surrounded him and professed their eternal love to him. However, as heartfelt a scene as that may have been, his family was equally concerned about who would inherit his wealth. There was a rumour circulating that Donati felt his family was too greedy and that he was bequeathing his entire estate to the Church. Consequently, Donati’s family was desperate to learn the contents of his will. So, as they surrounded him on his deathbed, some of them also engaged in some detective work, searching everywhere for the elusive will. Eventually Buoso Donati passed away. His will was discovered and the rumours of his gift of the family fortune to the Church were realized as being true. The entire family had been cut out of the will. They were upset and completely devastated, as one can imagine.

A few weeks prior to Donati’s death, his nephew, Rinuccio, had come across a lovely young woman named Lauretta. Lauretta was a commoner by birth but as soon as Rinuccio laid his eyes upon her, he was immediately attracted to her. Despite the differences in their social status, Rinuccio had planned to bring Lauretta to meet his family. He was convinced that they would see how wonderful and beautiful she was for themselves and would welcome her into the family and grant their blessing so they could be married. In turn, Lauretta thought Rinuccio was very kindhearted and handsome. The two young lovers fell in love, even though they both knew that such a union was highly unlikely to be approved because she just wasn’t of his station in life, and that social chasm was one that was rarely, if ever, breached. Lauretta’s father was a knight named Gianni Schicchi. With the family gathering together in anticipation of Donati’s death, Rinuccio invited Lauretta to attend the affair. He felt that the distraction caused by Donati’s poor health would be enough to allow Lauretta to avoid too much scrutiny and would give the couple time to display their love and affection as the first impression everyone would have. Lauretta had never attended an event in society circles and was, understandably, nervous. (At this moment in the operatic retelling of the story, Lauretta sings the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” to her father as she seeks a way for him to help her win the hand of her beloved). When Gianni Schicchi arrived at Buoso Donati’s estate and learned how close to death Donati actually was and how worried his family was about the contents of his will, Schicchi hatched a devious plan.

Gianni Schicchi had many skills that were not all that useful in real life. One of those skills was that he had a knack for being able to imitate the voices of those in his company. Upon arrival, Schicchi was able to listen to Donati as he gasped out his final words to various family members. After Donati died, but before a doctor arrived on scene to officially pronounce him as being dead, Schicchi approached young Rinuccio. Schicchi understood how devastated the family was at being cut out of the will. What if, he proposed to Rinuccio, he could get the will changed in the family’s favour? Rinuccio listened skeptically. Schicchi laid out a plan whereby he would speak in Donati’s voice using his skill of mimicry and would “dictate” a new last will and testament that would end up favouring the family. In return, the family would accept Lauretta as Rinuccio’s bride to be. All along, Schicchi felt that Donati had been correct in pegging his family as being more concerned about getting their hands on his wealth than they ever were about him. Rinuccio pitched the plan to his family. They agreed to let Schicchi try, but first, they wanted him to prove that he could pass as Donati. Schicchi agreed and asked for the doctor to be summoned. When the doctor arrived, he found Donati’s bedroom door closed. From inside of the room, the “voice” of Donati called out. Schicchi apologized for having summoned the doctor and claimed to be feeling much improved. The doctor accepted the apology and left the estate thinking that Donati was still alive. Donati’s family was thrilled with Schicchi’s success and immediately sent for the family lawyer so that a new will could be drawn up. Once the lawyer arrived he, too, was faced with a closed bedroom door. He agreed to write up a new will but refused to do so with family members present so he sent everyone away. Alone with the lawyer, Schicchi created a new will that left the bulk of everything to him. Schicchi said that he was unable to sign the will at that moment because of his illness but if the lawyer left the will, he would sign it and ensure it was returned to the lawyer later that day. The lawyer left. Schicchi signed the will in Donati’s name and sealed the will in an envelope closed shut with Donati’s own wax seal. The family returned and were highly pleased with Schicchi. Once the lawyer had received the signed copy of the new will, the family called for the doctor again so that the real death of Buoso Donati could be declared and publicly announced. Once his death was declared, the greedy family members summoned the lawyer back to read the will. It was only then, at the reading of the will, that the family learned they had been duped by Gianni Schicchi. The entire estate of Buoso Donati was now legally the property of a swindler.

Needless to say, Gianni Schicchi did not get away with his attempted crime. Donati’s family flew into a rage and immediately contested the new will. Schicchi was imprisoned and the former will was invoked and brought back into force. The family never did get any money from the estate, but at least they got some satisfaction in that Gianni Schicchi didn’t get the family fortune, either. That went to the Church, as Donati had wished all along. The story of the attempted swindling of the Donati family fortune would have been a story lost to time in all likelihood except for the fact that it was told to a man named Dante Alighieri. Dante’s wife had been a relative of Buoso Donati and was intimately familiar with what had happened. Thus, Dante was able to use Schicchi as one of the characters who gets his comeuppance in the Divine Comedy, which was one of the first important written works ever. Because popular writing was such a new thing in society, Dante Alighieri had a unique platform to make his political points. One of the points he chose to make was to reinforce the notion of class separation and of lower class people knowing and accepting their place in society. One of the ways he did this was by incorporating the story of Gianni Schicchi into his narrative poem.

Giacomo Puccini

Puccini, (who wrote the music) and Forzano (who wrote the libretto for Gianni Schicchi) both were inspired by Dante’s take on the story of the Death of Buoso Donati but decided to tell a slightly lighter tale and so, they made their opera into a comedy. In this comedy, the wealthy Donati family members are not meant to be portrayed as victims of a schemer and are, in fact, portrayed as the greedy bumblers that they probably were. Gianni Schicchi began a new tradition in Italian opera by being a comic opera that sought to lampoon the nature of a class-based society. In doing so, Puccini ushered in a new era of operas from Italy. By the end of his career and life, Giacomo Puccini was as highly regarded a composer as was the man he was brought in to emulate, Giuseppe Verdi. Together, these two titans of Italian opera remain forever linked in glory by those who believe that Italian opera is the world’s best opera.

The link to the video for the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi can be found here.

The link to the official website for Giacomo Puccini can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station…Classical 103.1….streaming worldwide from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #27/50: The Twelve Variations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A young Mozart at Versailles.

For a short while during the 1700s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived in Paris, France. Like many who had come to live there before him, Mozart was inspired by the culture of the French people. In particular, he was delighted by a simple French folk song entitled “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”. The melody of this folk song is universally recognized as the foundation of three classic children’s songs: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the “ABC song”. If you sing each song in your head, you will notice that the melody is exactly the same for each song and that, not only that, you can interchange the lyrics from one song to the other without losing any of the melodic flow at all.

What Mozart did with this folk song is something in music known as theme and variation. What that means is that a composer such as Mozart will begin the composition with a standard set piece of music which will be played in its entirety. This is known as the theme. Then, the composer will replay that original set piece but alter it in one specific way each time. This is known as the variation. In the specific case of “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”, Mozart played the original “Twinkle, Twinkle” version as the theme and then altered it in twelve ways (such as rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, by changing the timbre, the orchestration and so on). By creating these twelve variations, Mozart was showing other composers, as well as his audience, that it was possible to take a well-known composition and present it in original and imaginative ways that all created something new and fresh while, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the foundational piece. By doing so, Mozart declared that it was within the realm of possibility to re-imagine the entire scope of all music created by humans up until that time.

Needless to say, Mozart’s ideas were often of a revolutionary nature that didn’t always work in harmony with the existing structured mindset possessed by many composers at the time. Mozart lived during a time period in which classical compositions were supposed to fit a certain mold. He found these expectations too restrictive and, as a result, often took delight in tweaking the noses of the musical establishment, as it were, by creating pieces such as his Twelve Variations. By insisting to the authorities at the various royal courts that he frequented that it was possible to alter existing works in ways that were exciting and new and yet still sounded like the original work, he was forcing them to accept the notion that the rules of musical composition weren’t set in stone. Granting future composers the freedom to experiment with musical form was one of the most important legacies that Mozart left behind after his death. He accomplished this in part because of his Twelve Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”.

The Twelve Variations scene from the Your Lie In April anime.

One of the things I enjoy about the research I do into the stories of these musical pieces is that sometimes something unexpected pops up which takes me in a whole new direction. One such instance of this occurred during my research into the Twelve Variations. While listening to this work on YouTube, I kept reading listener comments that stated something along the lines, “Who else is here because of Your Lie In April?” I had no idea what Your Lie In April was so I went down the rabbit hole and began researching that topic. Here is what I found. In Japan, there is a very popular art form known as Manga. For lack of a better comparative term, Japanese manga translates roughly the same as North American comic books. We might simply call that form of artistic expression as being “comics”. In Japan, they call it “manga”. So anyway, in Japan there was a manga series that was based upon music. That series was called Your Lie in April. The series was released in serial form, meaning one chapter at a time. The story involved a child prodigy who was an award-winning pianist. This child was driven by his mother to attain a level of perfection that made his stage presence and his playing almost seem robotic. Despite that, he inspires a young girl to take up the violin. She does so with dreams of one day playing on stage with the young man. Eventually the two meet and become friends. Then, a tragedy happens. The mother of the pianist dies from an illness. The boy finds that he can no longer hear the piano when it plays, and he lapses into a form of depression because his gift appears to have been taken from him just as his mother was. The young girl seeks to nurture his soul back so that he will attempt to perform again and that she can do it with him. I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away, but Your Lie In April had a very emotional ending, to say the least.

Because the manga was about music but was in two-dimensional book form, many felt as though something was missing. So, an animé (or, live action animated version) of the manga was created for television. It aired in episodic fashion in Japan a few years ago. Because the story was being told like a movie now, all of the classical music that the pianist and his violinist friend were practicing and performing could be played aloud in the animé. On episode #3 of the series, the pianist’s mother had just died and he was discovering that he couldn’t play the piano anymore. The young girl was trying to cheer him up in a café. Suddenly, two young children begin to play Mozart’s Twelve Variations on a piano located in the café. (Remember, the tune is just “Twinkle, Twinkle”). The violinist asks her friend if he can hear those notes and guides him over to where the little girls are playing. They recognize him as being the famous child prodigy they had seen on TV and ask him to play with them. With encouragement, he begins to play for the first time since his mother had passed away, only to find the notes are elusive and he cannot even play “Twinkle, Twinkle” anymore. This scene can be viewed by clicking here.

I have always believed in the power of creativity. The act of creating something out of nothing is absolutely exhilarating! Whether it is me with the blank screen that appears before me as I begin each post or a chef who gathers the ingredients that will combine to make a feast or a composer who takes a blank sheet of paper and fills it with squiggles that play as melodies, being able to create something new and original that may bring pleasure to others is what motivates me and so many others to do what we do each day of our lives. It was what motivated a creative genius like Mozart to explore and surpass the boundaries of what was possible during his lifetime in the world of classical composition. It is, also, the loss of that creative ability that quickly drained the joy away from the young pianist in the animé Your Lie In April. Being a creator is important. So, give your children crayons and blank paper, along with the colouring books with pre-drawn pictures. Let them make their marks and tell their stories accordingly. Our imagination is one of the most precious aspects of ourselves, along with our hearts and needs to be protected and nurtured and unleashed as required. Just as we do by exercising to keep our bodies healthy, take some time today (and every day) for a little play time. It will do wonders for your imagination and it will do wonders for your soul. Now that you have read this post….go and play! Have some fun! I will see you again next time with a whole new story. Until then, take care. Bye for now.

The link to the video for the composition “The Twelve Variations” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website of the Mozart Museum can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station…Classical 103.1…which broadcasts from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #26/50: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Mr. Chuck Berry

Over the past few years I have spent much time writing about music and the stories behind the most famous songs and genres throughout history. Much of that writing has focussed on Rock n’ Roll. One of the most factual pieces of information to arise out of all of this research and storytelling is that Rock n’ Roll drew much of its inspiration from the Blues and from Gospel. In other words, there was a whole host of musicians and bands who gained fame by taking the best aspects of the Blues and Gospel and integrating that into a new form of Pop music. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and others of their ilk all readily admit to initially being inspired to become musicians by the likes of Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so on. One of the things about Rock n’ Roll, no matter who was doing the playing, was that it frightened those who sought to preserve the status quo in society at the time. Rock was called “the Devil’s music”. Many conservative organizations sought to ban it in one form or another. Laying just beneath the surface of this outrage was the odious notion that the real problem with Rock n’ Roll was that it was “Black” music. It was dangerous. It was sexual. It wasn’t proper. While Elvis and The Beatles were celebrated as being musical innovators, the likes of Marvin Gaye and Ben E. King and Curtis Mayfield had to ply their trade on the Chitlin’ Circuit because that was the safest avenue for singers of colour to perform and to express themselves. There were no cheesy movies made about the Reverend Al Green or Sam Cooke. It is simplest to say that the personal and professional experiences of Black musicians differed from those of their White counterparts. For Black musicians, Gospel and the Blues were part of their cultural heritage in a profoundly important manner that just didn’t apply to most White singers.

Many Speakeasies that sprang up in the 1920s showcased Jazz and served alcohol to a multi-racial clientele.

The notion that history repeats itself applies to music as well. Rock n’ Roll was not the first instance when a culturally significant form of musical expression for Black people was co-opted, sanitized and homogenized by Whites who, in turn, were celebrated and honoured for their efforts. The exact same thing happened a half century earlier with the musical genre called Jazz. While Rock n’ Roll was built upon a foundation of Gospel and the Blues, Jazz also incorporated the Blues but in a form that was spiced up with equal measures of Creole, Latin and Caribbean rhythms. Many point to New Orleans, Louisiana, as being the birthplace of Jazz and that, unlike much of the rest of the world’s music, Jazz was a uniquely American construct. Unencumbered by history and by rules handed down from centuries of European experience (as was the case with Classical music), Jazz was more free form and liberated. It was also primarily the purvey of Black musicians. As such, there was an initial air of mystery about Jazz for White audiences. What really brought White audiences and the world of Jazz together was the introduction in the 1920s of Prohibition. The legalized attempt to ban alcohol consumption only served to drive the market for booze underground and into the hands of organized crime figures such as Al Capone. Under the auspices of Prohibition, illegal nightclubs sprang up like weeds. These nightclubs would sell alcohol on the sly. Thus, clubs known as speakeasies began to appear and with them, Jazz musicians found a home. Because Jazz was considered to be Black music, there was a sexiness and an allure about it that drew White people to these speakeasy nightclubs. The 1920s became known as The Roaring Twenties in part because of the growth of Jazz and Swing music.

This is where knowing your history is important. Many of you are aware that it was just as Chuck Berry and Little Richard and James Brown were threatening to break through and become popular acts of their own accord that Rock n’ Roll suddenly went “White” with the appearance of Elvis and The Beatles. It was not some bit of divine intervention or some fluke of timing that saw these White entertainers appear from out of nowhere on their way to superstardom. The powers that be behind the scenes…the Col. Parkers of the world…knew that it was a White world and that they could only take Black music so far in terms of its acceptance by White audiences. These folks knew that if they could take the best of Black music and repackage it in a manner that would more easily appeal to White audiences, then they would really have something. The same thing was true for Jazz.

Composer George Gershwin.

Jazz was born from the cultural heritage of Black people. It rose to prominence as a musical genre during the age of prohibition and thus, it seemed illicit in a way to those not totally familiar with it. But, the growing appeal of Jazz music was undeniable. So, too, was the appeal it had to those who sought to control it and market it and profit from it. Just like it was later with Rock n’ Roll, the moment when Jazz crossed over into the mainstream of White culture in America occurred when a man named George Gershwin was challenged to create a Jazz-inspired crossover composition that would unite the world of Classical music (which was uniformly White) with the world of Jazz (which was almost entirely Black). That composition was called “Rhapsody in Blue”. This composition changed the nature of Jazz music in America in the same way that Elvis singing “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton changed Rock music in the 1950s. What was proudly Black now became commercially White. And everything was different then.

George Gershwin was only twenty-five years old when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue”. He was inspired to create the music for it after having ridden on a train. The pounding circular rhythm of the train’s movements caused Gershwin to develop the core components of the composition. Up until this moment, Gershwin had been known for providing the soundtrack to plays in much the same way that Mozart created the music for operas such as “The Marriage of Figaro”. As such, Gershwin was a rising star in the New York music scene. Because he was so young and successful, the powers that be felt that he would be the perfect person to launch as the face of modern Jazz. Trained in classical music as he was, Gershwin was very familiar with creating works for orchestras. He would write music for specific instruments and then weave the individual parts together to form a tapestry of sound that was pleasing to the ear. The challenge he faced with “Rhapsody in Blue” was to take the classical music format and insert elements of Jazz music into it while, at the same time, using traditional classical instruments in a Jazz style. Gershwin accomplished this by opening his piece with an elongated clarinet solo, that when first played, was unlike anything audiences had heard before. The opening of “Rhapsody in Blue” has become one of the most famous musical openings of all time. To those in attendance the first time “Rhapsody in Blue” was played, it was obvious that music was original and innovative and had staked new musical ground. Gershwin’s debut performance was met with rapturous applause. From that moment onward, “Rhapsody in Blue” was Jazz in America. To authentic New Orleans Jazz players, “Rhapsody in Blue” struck them as relatively bland and vanilla-like. But they also knew that White men had arrived in the world of Jazz and that the jig would never be the same again. They were right about that. As you listen to “Rhapsody in Blue” below, I hope that you appreciate it for the lovely piece of music that it is. The clarinet movement off of the top was an inspired choice to lead off the composition and act as an invitation into the mysterious world of Jazz for modern audiences. This was no speakeasy composition, but rather, it was a mass-marketing tool that drew as its inspiration the strength and beauty of America. A White America for White Americans. Gershwin was to Jazz as Elvis was to Rock n’ Roll. Somewhere down in New Orleans, beyond the tourist-trap allure of Bourbon Street, there is a Black Jazz player who is channeling an entire history worth of experience into their performance in the same manner that Billie Holiday once sang of “Strange Fruit”.

I will end this post as I began by simply stating the fact that the cultural and historical experiences that Black musicians infuse into their music are profoundly and deeply different than those experienced by Whites. They just are. For as lovely and historically significant a piece of music that “Rhapsody in Blue” is, it isn’t real Jazz. It is something else. Real Jazz comes from somewhere else. Somewhere deeper. I hope that you like it anyway. Many do. Just as many adored Elvis, too.

The link to the video for the composition “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin can be found here.

The link to the official website for George Gershwin can be found here.

The link to the official website for Classical music radio station extraordinaire…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #25/50: The Marriage of Figaro Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Free speech isn’t something that any of us should really take for granted. Our ability to publicly criticize the decisions made by our leaders is one of the foundational pillars of living in a democratic society. In my lifetime, I have written letters to the editor, have taken to social media and have even grabbed a picket sign and marched with others to demonstrate my unhappiness with certain government policies and my determination to affect change through organized resistance. And guess what? Not one time did I ever end up in jail. No one knocked on my door in the middle of the night with billy clubs at the ready. My family was never targeted for retribution by those in positions of power. I am extremely privileged to live at a time and in a place that allows for public dissent. Not everyone is so lucky in our world, and certainly, not everyone has been so lucky throughout the course of history. Today’s post is about a character named Figaro who was the central character in one of the world’s very first entertainment franchises. Figaro was also seen as a threat by the powers that be and, as a result, was banned across many countries in Europe during the late 1700s. So, without further delay, allow me to introduce you to Figaro,,,the man better known as The Barber of Seville.

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

In the early 1700s, there lived a man named Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. He was born the son of a watchmaker and ended up becoming an influential figure in the Royal Court of Louis XV. Over the course of his life, Beaumarchais was a music teacher, a horticulturalist, an arms dealer, a spy and a playwright. Beaumarchais was one of the leading figures in France who advocated for France to supply arms to those fighting for independence in the United States. If you are familiar at all with the Broadway musical Hamilton, then you will know that France was a crucial ally of the US and a huge irritant to the British against whom the US were fighting. In the world of politics, Beaumarchais believed in the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and, therefore, he devoted much time and money toward causes that supported US independence abroad, as well as revolution within his own borders. One of the ways that Beaumarchais sought to accomplish unrest was by rousing the public via the Arts. In the 1700s, many political activists realized that one of the best ways to get messages out to commoners was through operas and plays and traveling minstrel shows. In the case of Pierre Beaumarchais, his gambit was the creation of three plays that have gone on to become known as The Figaro Trilogy. These three plays were The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother. Each play was subsequently adapted into a libretto (the handbook given to audience members attending an opera). Each libretto was paired with a fully-realized opera. The Barber of Seville was the first opera to be professionally produced. The musical score was composed by Gioachino Rossini. The Marriage of Figaro was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

What Beaumarchais did that was considered so dangerous to the establishment that his plays (and subsequent operas) were banned was to create a character who thumbed his nose at those in positions of power in a way that made him a champion of the under class and all who felt oppressed. That character was Figaro. The character of Figaro, itself, was based upon an Italian character named Brighella. Brighella was a musketeer-like man who carried with him a stick that he used to spank or poke other characters. This prop was known as a “slap stick” and became an integral tool in the development of a form of comic opera that was to become very popular with ordinary citizens. Slapstick comedy has gone on to become one of the most popular forms of comedy in the world today. In the world of slapstick, there is great emphasis put on physical comedy, sexual innuendo and bawdy humour. Because Pierre Beaumarchais had his finger on the pulse of his nation, he knew that one of the ways to sow the seeds of revolution among the citizens of France was to create a character around whom they could identify and rally. So, Beaumarchais wrote The Barber of Seville and introduced the citizens of France to Figaro. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro plays a servant to a man named Count Almaviva. Without going into the full plots of The Figaro Trilogy plays, the main thing you need to know is that all throughout the three plays, Figaro makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Count or those who frequent the Royal Court. As a servant, Figaro was supposed to show deference and respect at all times to those who sat above his station in life. That Figaro would engage in debates with the Count, be openly critical of decisions rendered by The Count or say rude things about him behind his back…albeit in a comedic way…was shocking for the times. What Beaumarchais was attempting to do was normalize the act of questioning those in positions of power. That he attempted to disguise his strategy in the form of bawdy humour did not fool those on the thrones of France or many other neighbouring countries. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, in particular, were both subject to being banned because the operas were seen as attempts to foment unrest among the lower working-class people in France. I can remember very clearly a scene from the Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus, in which Mozart has been commissioned to create the opera for The Marriage of Figaro by a social activist who wanted the opera to air in a public theatre (as opposed to one controlled by the King). Mozart agreed and was quite pleased by the opera he eventually created. Then, after it was forced to close after only seven performances, Mozart struggled to comprehend why, when he believed it to be so good. It was behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that did Mozart in at the time. But, as history has shown, the American Revolution succeeded with the important aid it received from France. In France, the French Revolution happened, and many in the ruling class found themselves kneeling beneath the sharp blade of the guillotine. Pierre Beaumarchais had a hand in both events coming to fruition. Even way back in the 1700s, the art of political subterfuge was alive and well.

The Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a very well known piece of music that you will recognize from the buzzing of the opening notes. As with all overtures, this composition was meant to serve as an introduction to the main portion of the opera. As a consequence, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro works well as a stand-alone composition. In the vast musical catalogue of Mozart’s work, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is one of his most popular and recognizable pieces of music. Over time, with the politics of revolution behind them, both operas were given new life by being performed in public once again. This time, each opera was given an extended theatrical run and was evaluated in glowing terms by critics and audiences alike. While the third opera in the Figaro Trilogy…The Guilty Mother…has never achieved much success, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro introduced the idea of recurring characters and extended storylines to the world of storytelling in opera. By doing so, Beaumarchais introduced the idea of an entertainment franchise for the first time. In our world, such franchises are quite common. Star Wars, The Godfather, the Marvel Universe are just some of the modern movie franchises that owe a debt of gratitude to Pierre Beaumarchais, who created the original operatic franchise and launched the era of character-driven storytelling.

The link to the video for the composition, “Overture to The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website for Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais can be found here.

The link to the official website for the world’s greatest classical music station…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

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

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #24/50: Messiah by George Frideric Handel

I have to be honest, it feels a little funny to title this post with the one lone word, Messiah. All throughout my lifetime, I have always heard this epic piece of music referred to as Handel’s Messiah. But with this one, simple example, I can state with confidence that George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece is not only one of the most important, complex and famous of all classical music works ever created, but it is also one of the most misunderstood and mis-performed, too. So, join me as we discover all there is to know about Messiah, including how it came to be regarded as a staple of religious ceremonies during the Christmas holidays when Handel actually intended it to be performed during another holiday festival altogether. Here is the story of Messiah by Handel.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel first gained fame as a composer by creating Italian operas. Handel was noted, in particular, for his ability to create works that combined the use of solo and choir singing, along with orchestral accompaniment. Handel would probably have continued creating operas for the rest of his life if not for politics raising its ugly head in the form of a Papal ban on all operas in Italy in the mid-1700s. At that time, the Pope felt that composers and librettists were surreptitiously using operas as a way to create a form of popular dissent among the common folk who gathered to watch these plays. So, in order to eliminate public gatherings that aroused the passions of the audience, the Pope simply banned Italian operas altogether. But, George Frideric Handel was clever enough to get around the Papal ban. Instead of operas, Handel focussed on a musical form known as an oratorio. Like an opera, an oratorio is a piece of music that uses choral and solo singing with orchestral accompaniment to tell a story, but it does so without any actors or specific story being staged. Instead, an oratorio is simply music and song that, with the help of a libretto (a handbook given to audiences to help them follow along as the music is played), still tells a story, just in a slightly different way.

So, Handel began creating oratorios. Most of these focussed on religious themes. The most famous of Handel’s oratorios was his Messiah. The Messiah is an oratorio that attempts to depict the life of Jesus Christ from birth, through crucifixion, all the way to His ascension into Heaven. Messiah contains almost sixty separate movements that are organized into three main acts. The libretto that was written to accompany Handel’s music was written by a man named Charles Jennens and follows the words of the King James version of the Bible quite literally. Act I describes the Nativity scene. Act II describes the life of Jesus, leading all the way to his crucifixion. Act III attempts to describe Heaven and the exultation of basking in the warm glow of God’s love.

While Handel’s Messiah may be well known by title, most people have never actually listened to it all the way through. The entire oratorio clocks in at around three hours in length, making it a bit of an endurance test for all but the most faithful and devout. For most people, the one portion of the oratorio that they know well is the Hallelujah Chorus. But again, I must point out that even if they recognize the tune that the Hallelujah Chorus possesses and they can sing the words “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” on repeat, as happens in this composition, most do not actually know any of the other lyrics that make up the chorus. If they did, they would recognize that the Hallelujah Chorus has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Instead, it speaks to the moment when a crucified Christ rose from the dead and went into Heaven. If you know your religious calendar of events at all, then you will know that the act of Jesus Christ rising from the dead and entering Heaven is part of the Passion and, as such, is meant to be associated with the holiday known as Easter. Not Christmas at all. When Handel first performed his Messiah oratorio, he did so as an Easter benefit for a series of charitable organizations in Ireland. Throughout the whole of his lifetime, Handel always performed his Messiah at Easter time. It was only after his death that the Messiah oratorio became a Christmas time event. The reason for making the move from Easter to Christmas was mainly a financial one. Since Messiah was often used to help charities fundraise, it was felt that those fundraising efforts would be more successful if held during the Christmas holiday season, when audience members were already predisposed to spend money. Thus, Messiah became a Christmas time tradition for many and has remained so for over a century now.

So if you have the opportunity to attend a performance of Messiah as put on at a local church or concert hall as this year’s Christmas season progresses, please attend and enjoy all three hours of your musical tour through the King James Bible. Allow your heart to fill with rapturous joy as the baby Jesus is born and becomes a man before your eyes, through song. Fear not during His crucifixion, for He will rise to live forever more in the Kingdom of Heaven. When Ascension happens, jump to your feet, throw back your head and sing as you have never sung before:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The kingdom of this world

Is become the kingdom of our Lord

And of His Christ, And of His Christ

And He shall reign for ever and ever

And He shall reign for ever and ever

And He shall reign for ever and ever

For ever and ever, For ever and ever

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!).

And He shall reign

And He shall reign

And He shall reign for ever and ever

King of Kings (Forever and ever)

And He shall reign (Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And He shall reign (for ever and ever)

King of Kings! Lord of Lords!

King of Kings! Lord of Lords!

And He shall reign (for ever and ever)

For ever and ever

For ever and ever

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!


There you have it, kids! The complete lyrics to the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. Now you know that you can’t just sing a bunch of hallelujahs and call yourself an oratorio pro (even though there are a bunch of hallelujahs in the actual lyrics). As often happens when lyrics appear on a page, without knowing the complex harmonizing that is going on all throughout this piece, it is difficult to appreciate how rousing these words are when performed properly…by those trained to know all of the words. I am not an overly religious man, but even I admit that the Hallelujah Chorus achieves the desired effect that Handel was going for by rousing the passions of his audience at the exact moment that Christ rises from the dead and ascends into Heaven. It is a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity, and it is shown well by Handel. For that, his Easter oratorio will garner a sort of immortality for Handel as the devout pay homage each Christmas season. A season which, like God Himself, Handel reigns over for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The link to the video for the composition “Hallelujah Chorus” can be found here.

The link to the video for the complete performance of Messiah by George Frideric Handel can be found here.

The link to the official website for George Frideric Handel can be found here.

The link to the world’s greatest classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

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