The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas: Composition #17/50…Keepin’ It Classy.

In today’s post we are going to talk about the classic tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For many of you, when I mention this story title, you are probably taken back to that famous segment of Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia, which stars Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who wages a losing battle against some magical mops because he had used a magic spell to get his work done instead of doing the work himself. If this is the image that you have then congratulations because what Walt Disney ended up doing with Fantasia was very innovative and important. We will talk about that in greater detail below. But first, did you know that the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is over 225 years old?! In fact, there have been three major iterations of this story spread liberally over those two and a quarter centuries. Each iteration was unique to the others, each was revolutionary at the time of its debut and each was extremely well-received by critics and public audiences, too. So, let’s travel back in time to 1797 and to Germany, where the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice truly begins.

The original author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In 1797, one of the world’s great thinkers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was busy writing and speaking on matters of philosophy, politics, literature, music, religion, botany and much more. Goethe’s ideas ended up becoming some of the foundational precepts that have guided the development of western civilization. His novels are listed among the most important and influential in history. He is revered as a mentor to famed philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Neitzsche and Carl Jung. In the field of The Arts, Goethe was acknowledged as a master of literary criticism and review, as well as that of classical music compositions by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler. Goethe was also a poet. In 1797, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a fourteen stanza poem entitled Dar Zauberlehrling. In English, we know the title as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The apprentice casts his spell. Goethe version.

Goethe’s poem tells the tale of a sorcerer who leaves the cleaning of his workshop to his young apprentice. Before going, the sorcerer leaves strict instructions with the apprentice to not touch any of the magical equipment that was located throughout the workshop and, most importantly of all, not to open the sorcerer’s spellbook and say any spells out loud. The sorcerer leaves the apprentice to his chores and exits the workshop. The apprentice gets to work but soon tires of his chores. Seeking an easy way out of having to do his work, the apprentice disobeys the sorcerer by opening his spellbook to look for a spell that would cause magic to do the work for him. The apprentice discovers a spell that he thinks might work for him. He states the spell aloud. Before he knows it, the mop begins to work on its own but, in doing so, it works too quickly and makes an even bigger mess. The apprentice panics because he does not know how to undo the spell and so he attempts to break the mop in half in order to stop it. But, breaking the mop actually causes new mops to spring up from the broken pieces. Now there are multiple mops all working frantically, much to the chagrin of the apprentice. In despair, the apprentice cries aloud for help. His cries are heard by the sorcerer who was returning to his shop. The sorcerer is able to stop the mops, undo the spell and save his workshop from further damage. The apprentice learns a valuable lesson in the process which is that if you want a job done well then do it right the first time. The life lesson contained in Dar Zauberlehrling resonated with German audiences who recognized that Goethe was using his poem to set out some rules for living a good and honourable life. This particular lesson spoke to the industrious nature of the German people and, as such this poem and the lesson it contained quickly became part of the fabric of German society.

The symphonic poem created by French composer, Paul Dukas, as seen in a version played in later years by The New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

For 100 years, Dar Zauberlehrling by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the definitive version that the world knew. But then, someone gazed upon this story with new eyes and came up with a completely original take on Goethe’s classic tale. In 1897, a French composer named Paul Dukas began creating works that he called “symphonic poems”. In simple terms, what Dukas decided to do was to create a musical score to accompany famous poems, speeches and dramatic scenes from plays. In this instance, he created a short symphony in which his notes and chords acted as the words of the poem. His music told the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in dramatic crescendos and quiet lulls. Dukas created a libretto to go with his symphony. *(A libretto was like a theatrical programme or small book that was given to audience members. For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas wrote out the words to Goethe’s poem so that audience members could follow the “action” and understand why his music rose and fell as it did). While the scoring of written works was not originated by Dukas, his version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a huge hit and became the gold standard by which other musical scores were measured. In fact, the score for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became the most popular work that Paul Dukas managed in his lifetime.

Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who casts his own unfortunate spell from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as seen in the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia.

Fast forward to the 1930s. Walt Disney was at the forefront of a new technology called movie animation. Instead of using film in the traditional way that was used in Hollywood, Disney and his team of animators had perfected a way of turning thousands of drawings or cells into a form of moving picture as well. In the late 1920s, Disney unveiled one of the first animated short features in the world. It was called “Steamboat Willie” and featured a character that came to be known as Mickey Mouse. Disney’s innovation struck a chord with the general public. Encouraged by the positive reception “Steamboat Willie” had, Disney and his team decided to reach higher and to go further than any animator had ever done before. This resulted in full length animated movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, along with Sleeping Beauty. When audiences saw these new movies, Mickey Mouse drifted into the background in terms of popularity. But Walt Disney was a loyal man and had a soft spot in his heart for the character that allowed his creative dreams to come true. So, Disney decided to create something original as a vehicle to rejuvenate Mickey Mouse’s image. The idea that Walt Disney had was to create a short movie that would be part of a series called “Silly Symphonies”. In this short movie, Disney decided to attempt something that hadn’t been done before…he wanted to pair animation with established pieces of classical music. For Mickey Mouse’s short movie, Walt Disney chose the Paul Dukas score of Goethe’s story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As the animation was filmed, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra played the Dukas score. Soon, the fully scored, animated short movie that became known as Walt Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice was complete. The only problem was that by the time they were finished, Disney was over budget. Way over budget. He was informed by his accountants that there was no way he would ever recoup his investment because the audience for short films was dwindling. Disney’s success with Snow White had changed viewing habits. Audiences now expected longer, more detailed stories. Cursed by his own success, Walt Disney had two choices: abandon “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or else, use it as part of something longer…something more in keeping with a full length movie. As we know, Walt Disney stuck to his creative guns and, instead of placing his short film in a warehouse to be forgotten, he went ahead and created eight other “Silly Symphonies’ using the same animators and same orchestra. With nine animated scores finished, Walt Disney assembled them all in one unified movie and called it Fantasia.

Walt Disney and the animated character that started it all…Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia was a huge hit with critics and modern audiences alike. It remains one of Disney’s most popular movies even to this day. There are two reasons why Fantasia has come to be regarded as one of Walt Disney’s most important and innovative films. First of all, he accomplished a very important thing by taking classical music out of the concert hall and introducing it to a mass audience who, otherwise would probably never have been exposed to the works of Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. Secondly, Fantasia caused Mickey Mouse to become a popular character again. In doing so, Mickey Mouse became the “face” of Walt Disney’s world which he envisioned as being much more than simply a movie animation studio. Because of the popularity of Mickey Mouse, Disney World came to be built, whole lines of merchandise were created and sold and much, much more.

The man, himself, Paul Dukas.

Our world is made better because of people with a positive creative vision. All throughout its history, the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has resonated in a way that few stories have. It was first a poem that was used to instill proper human virtues for living a good and proper life. Then, that lesson was taken further a century later by marrying a musical score with a literary work. Half a century after that, the idea was taken a final step further when a literary work with a musical score was provided with animated visuals to aid in the telling of the story. So, read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a poem, listen to it as a symphony or watch it as an animated film. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Paul Dukas and Walt Disney have all brought their own brand of genius to bear and we are all the better for it.

The link to the video for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as it appears in the movie, Fantasia, can be found in two parts, here and here.

The link to the official movie trailer for the original 1940 version of Fantasia can be found here.

The link to the official website for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe can be found here.

The link to the official website for Paul Dukas can be found here.

The link to the official website for Walt Disney can be found here.

The link to the classical music station that streams live to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada….Classical 103.1 FM….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 should be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian…Composition #16/50: Keepin’ It Classy.

As a creator of artistic content, I always find it interesting to see how my work is received once I press the “Publish” button and send it out into the world. In the blogging world, I am definitely a small-timer but, I have had one post that has done very well in terms of “the numbers”. The post in question was one that I wrote several years ago, not long after the lead singer of The Tragically Hip. Gord Downie, had passed away. The featured song was “Long Time Running”. *(You can read that post here). In that post, I spoke about how we invite public figures into our private lives. I spoke about how the guys in The Hip turned out to be pretty much what we thought they were when all was said and done. They were a band of brothers who cared about each other and who all walked away when Gord said it was time. Their departure, while sad, was satisfying nonetheless. I contrasted the story of The Hip with that of Canadian Olympic darlings, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. While at the Olympics in South Korea, those two crafted a love story for the ages. We were all convinced that they would win Gold and then return to Canada, get married, have what amounted to a royal wedding and go on as Canada’s sweethearts for eternity. But as we all know, their relationship was not what it seemed. Unlike The Hip, Tessa and Scott were never in love. In fact, Scott had been dating another woman all throughout the glory days of their career. When that news broke, as a nation we felt let down and disappointed. So anyway, I wrote the post, said what I said and like all other posts, I hit the “Publish” button, sent it off to the world and expected around 30-50 people to see it and a handful to comment. That is what usually happens to my stories. And that is ok. But something unusual happened to the Long Time Running post…it caught on somewhere out there and has turned out to be my most popular post (in terms of views) of anything else I have ever published. In fact, the numbers for that post dwarf everything else I have done. Of the approximately 20,000 total page views my stories have had cumulatively over the years, Long Time Running accounts for almost one third of that total all by itself. It is as close to going viral as a guy like me can get. And yet, I can’t really explain why this post caught fire when so many other posts have gone by the wayside. But, it has.That’s one of the funny things about being a content creator, you can never be completely sure how your work will be received. You can have an idea as to whether or not your work has artistic merit but, as far as popularity goes, it is often just as surprising to us as it may be to you when something takes off and comes to define us in a way. The story I have just told is a much smaller version of what happened to today’s composer, Armenian-born Aram Khachaturian. Here is what happened to him as a result of him creating a dance called The Sabre Dance.

Khachaturian’s story is one that is best understood within the political context of his times. Khachaturian lived his entire life either in the shadow of Russia or else, in Russia itself. As you may know, Russia’s history is characterized by the constant ebb and flow of its territorial ambitions. The countries that exist in close geographic proximity to Mother Russia all have felt the impact of its presence over time. In some cases, that has meant Soviet occupation of their neighbours. In other cases, it has meant that Russia has allowed their neighbours to claim a sort of independence but, because of economic and military pressure, the reality is that Russia’s neighbours often end up operating as more of a branch plant than they do an independent state. Another aspect of Russian history that is undeniable is that the power structure within Russia has usually been that of an authoritarian dictatorship. Strongmen rule, from Stalin through to Putin. As a consequence, those on the outside of the inner circle of power tend to jockey for favour. It isn’t very often that anyone has the courage (or foolhardiness) to challenge Russian leadership from within. To do so has historically been akin to political and personal suicide.

Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

So it was in this political and cultural environment that Aram Khachaturian became interested in music. Although born in Armenia, Khachaturian grew up with the hope of training in Moscow with the best Russian composers of the day such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. So, Kahachaturian moved to Russia and enrolled in the best music schools. Soon, he became known for his ability to compose scores for ballets. At that time, most ballets and theatre productions were not pure dramas based on whatever topic the creator desired. Instead, most creative productions adhered to the political parameters as set out by overseers in the Russian parliament. This was true of a ballet that Khachaturian scored that was called Gayene. Gayene was a ballet that told the story of a farming collective in which the heroes of the story displayed “proper Russian virtues” and the villains of the play did not. There is a love story in which the female lead (a woman who works on the farming collective) falls in love with the Russian district commander. Her husband, who plots against the collective and, by extension, against Russia, gets his comeuppance in the end. As Khachaturian was scoring the various scenes in this ballet, he did so as he always did…he created his best work for each scene so that at the end of the ballet, authorities would approve of his work and that he might be able to rise in the ranks of the Russian musical establishment. One of the scenes that he scored was a fight scene. In that scene, Khachaturian created a piece of music that has come to be known as “The Sabre Dance”. At the time of its creation, “The Sabre Dance” was merely another musical patch on a patchwork quilt that was the entire score of the ballet. However, just like me and my post, Long Time Running, upon its release, “The Sabre Dance” took on a life of its own. It was given an enthusiastic reception by audiences and by Russian leaders alike. Over the course of time, it has become known as Khachaturian’s signature composition despite the fact that it was never considered special by him nor was it even something that he was particularly proud of. But, as history has proven time and time again, content creators are not always in control of which works become popular and the extent to which this popularity may grow. The fiddler doesn’t always call the tune.

This is the sort of slapstick comedy that “The Sabre Dance” has come to be associated with, much to Cram Khachaturian’s chagrin. LOS ANGELES – SEPTEMBER 15: Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz and Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo in the I LOVE LUCY episode, “Job Switching.” Original air date is September 15, 1952.

Like so many of the compositions profiled on Keepin’ It Classy, I know that you have heard “The Sabre Dance” before. Its popularity has grown beyond the borders of the Russian sphere of influence and has become known all around the world. The tempo of “The Sabre Dance” is fast-paced, almost manic. It has been used in numerous movie scenes, as well as television shows. In almost every case, “The Sabre Dance” has been the soundtrack of a chase scene or a comedy scene. In fact, if you are familiar with the iconic TV scene from “I Love Lucy” in which she and her friend are working at the chocolate factory and are frantically trying to package the chocolates that are coming out on the conveyor belt faster and faster…well, that is the kind of slapstick scene where “The Sabre Dance” is used most often. The fact that his composition, which was never intended as being used for comedic purposes, has ended up being viewed in that regard around the world was, initially, a source of shame for Aram Khachaturian. He always considered himself a serious composer. In his career, Khachaturian composed the scores for dozens of ballets, as well as many pieces of stand-alone music in the classical genre. He went on to be promoted to the top cultural post for music in Russia for several decades. In his Armenian homeland, Khachaturian is considered the greatest composer in that country’s history. There are statues erected in his honour there. And yet…..the work that he is most known for is a throw-away score for a minor scene in a minor ballet.

A rather grand looking statue of Aram Khachaturian in Yerevan, Armenia.

In the end, Khachaturian came around a bit in his thinking with regard to the cultural impact of “The Sabre Dance”. As most creative types can agree, the process of creating something out of nothing is what motivates us. If that “something” can bring pleasure to others then, so much the better. Although Khachaturian always maintained that he created more impressive and substantial compositions, he came to appreciate the pleasure that “The Sabre Dance” brought to others and, in doing so, brought a measure of peace to his own mind. Popularity is a fickle mistress. But, as his career wound down, Khachaturian was content with his body of work and did not let the opinion of others define himself in his own mind. I have always maintained that being able to look back upon a lifetime of work and be proud of what you have achieved is all that one can truly wish for. To achieve such a thing is an accomplishment of immeasurable value.

The link to the video for the composition known as “The Sabre Dance” can be found here.

The link to an official website for Aram Khachaturian can be found here.

The link to the best classical radio station around…Classical 103.1 in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada…can be found here.

Keepin’ It Classy: #15/50: Beethoven Funeral March Number 1 by Johann Heinrich Walch.

These are the stories behind the world’s most memorable classical compositions.

Death is a natural part of life. We are all born and one day, we will all die. There is nothing as constant and safe a bet in all of human history than the fact that one day we will all die. Death comes for ditch diggers and astronauts, poets and hotel maids, it comes for Kings and Queens as well. When commoners die, friends, colleagues and family members gather to pay their respects, share some favourite memories and then, to join together in prayer and song to help send the newly departed on their way to the afterlife (if one believes in that) or to eternal nothingness and slow decay (if that is what you believe as well). Every town and city has a funeral home of some sort. Funerals happen all of the time. They are so common that, in fact, most of us pay them no heed as they occur. We live and then we die. Death is really nothing out of the ordinary.

Except when it is.

The funeral procession for Queen Elizabeth of England.

As I write these words, it is Monday, September 19, 2022 or, as history will remember it, the date of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II of England. Most of us live our whole lives in a form of relative anonymity. Not the Queen. She has sat on the throne of England and, by extension, many countries around the world that England has colonized, for seventy years. Her life was impactful in very profound ways. Her image is known by millions of people around the world. Her legacy of service before self casts a nostalgic glow over a world and a time that many deem as being simpler and more humane. She did not live in relative anonymity. She was one of the most recognizable people in the whole world. And yet, Death still came for her, too. But, while Death came, it did not take her away in silence. The Queen’s death has instantly become an event that will go down in the annals of British history. Thousands of people have stood on the side of the road or have turned to their televisions and computers to watch her coffin pass through the streets of various English towns and cities. Many have left bouquets of flowers and/or jam sandwiches at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Even more will watch her funeral service as it plays out today. Through it all, the Royal Family will mourn in a public manner as befits their status as the head of the nation. And yes, there will be music, too.

Throughout the course of the history of Classical music, there have been many occasions in which composers have created works to be played during the funeral services for members of the nobility. In a previous post, we have discussed funeral marches that were composed by Frederic Chopin and by Edward Elgar *(You can read these posts here and here). Both of those famous funeral marches will find their place in today’s events in London as part of the ceremony honouring Queen Elizabeth. There is a third famous funeral march that is well known in England and which will probably be played today but which is erroneously entitled, “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1”. First let me tell you why this march is so famous in England and then, I will tell you a bit about why the title is misleading.

A cenotaph in England. Walch’s funeral march often follows the playing of The Last Post.

“Beethoven Funeral March Number 1” is a march of remembrance that has been played in England for decades as part of that country’s Remembrance ceremonies held each year to honour those soldiers who have fallen in the fields of battle in various global conflicts. It is always played after the Last Post sounds and, as such it has become part of the soundtrack to the British way of life and is always viewed as being a respectful and honourable piece of music. The thing that is misleading about the title, “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1” is that this composition was not written by Beethoven at all. Instead, the music for this composition was written by a German conductor and composer named Johann Heinrich Walch. Walch had a history of creating funeral marches that commemorated the end of wars. He created a piece called “Pariser Einzugsmarsch” at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This piece of music was also played for Adolf Hitler as he watched German troops marching through the streets of Paris in 1940. The march that has come to be called, “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1” was written when Walch was working under the auspices of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg who, as you may know if you are a history buff, was a link in the hereditary chain between the British Monarchy and the aristocracy of Germany that had existed for centuries, including during WWII. The famous “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1” was thought to have been originally written by Walch for Prince Albert who was Queen Victoria’s consort. Prince Albert was the Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha at the time. Since then, this composition has been played at the funerals of King Edward VII, British Prime Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as having been played throughout the procession that saw Queen Elizabeth’s coffin pass through the streets of England.

The man, himself…Johann Heinrich Walch…composer of the erroneously titled, “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1”.

So again, as was the case with the funeral marches written by Chopin and by Elgar, I urge you to click on the link below and give Walch’s composition a few moments of your time. I write with great confidence when I say that I am quite certain you will hear this piece of music played at some point in the funeral proceedings. And if it is played and there are credits displayed on television that call this piece “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1”, I hope that you will all wag your finger at the screen and state aloud that you know the real composer is Johann Heinrich Walch and that you read it first on Tom Macinnes’ little blog series called, Keepin’ It Classy.

I will end by offering a simple wish for Queen Elizabeth and all others who happen to share her death date today…thank you to each of you for being part of our world for as long as you managed. Many blessings to you and those you love as you transition from life to death. May whatever happens next be painless. Let it be a form of release. God Bless you all.

The link to the video for the composition, “Beethoven Funeral March Number 1” by Johann Heinrich Walch can be found here.

The link to the official website for Johann Heinrich Walch can be found here.

The link to the classical music radio station found in my very own town of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada…Classical 103.1…can be found here.

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

Keepin’ It Classy…Composition #14/50: Enigma Variations, Op.36, No. 9 “Nimrod” by Edward Elgar.

These are the stories behind the world’s most memorable classical compositions.

HRH Queen Elizabeth. This was her official portrait taken in honour of her 70th year as Queen of England.

As a blogger, I try my best to stay one day ahead when it comes to publishing the content that you get to read. As a result, I spent yesterday morning creating the latest post in my Reader’s Choice series. When I was finished, the post was completed and all that was left for me to do was to hit the “Publish” button this morning and the post would have gone live as intended. At the time I was writing yesterday’s post, I had no idea that someone’s 96 year old Granny was on her deathbed halfway across the world. But, after having a bit of lunch and a spot of hot tea, I learned, what the world soon learned, that Queen Elizabeth had passed away. No matter what opinion one holds of Queen Elizabeth or of the British Monarchy, in general, her passing is big news. It dwarfs much of what is in the current news cycle at this moment. It certainly made what I had written yesterday seem irrelevant…at least in terms of publishing it in the midst of all this sadness and uproar caused by the Queen’s death. So, instead of simply hitting the “Publish” button this morning as I had intended, I am, instead, creating a whole new post for today because there is certainly lots to say about Elizabeth of Windsor, her impact and her legacy. So, for those keeping track, I will publish the Reader’s Choice post on Monday and am publishing a new post for Keepin’ It Classy today (which is Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 as I write).

Like most people reading this post, Queen Elizabeth has been the only Queen I have known in my lifetime. Prime Ministers and Presidents have come and gone but for seventy years, she has occupied the throne of England. Her longevity merits applause. When she was first crowned as Queen, she promised to devote her entire life to public service. That she has done. Queen Elizabeth began fulfilling that promise by working as a mechanic during WWII. In the passing years, she has gone on to head up hundreds and hundreds of charities and other organizations whose mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of others. I grew up in a home in which the example of service before self was viewed as a great virtue. My mother, in particular, always devoted herself to the care of others as a registered nurse and then, after retirement, as someone who helped out in Seniors homes as well as in her church. I followed her lead by becoming a school teacher. Helping children and their families was a tremendous source of satisfaction and pride to me. So, when the news of Queen Elizabeth’s passing first became known, my initial thought was for my mother and those of her generation who placed so much emphasis on helping others based upon the Queen’s own example. Further to this, one of our family’s most steadfast traditions at Christmas time was to gather round the television at some point during the day and listen to the annual “Queen’s Christmas Message” from Buckingham Palace. It brought my family a great sense of peace to hear her speak and to know that she was present at the helm. The simple fact that she lived and was so steady a public presence for all of these years is much of what made her so important to ordinary folks like us. The political winds may have blown this way or that but the Queen was unwavering and steadfast and resolute in her demeanour. As long as she was there, our world would be alright. And now she is gone. A foundational pillar has been removed by death and the world seems a little shakier this day than it was before.

However, any sadness or trepidation that I may feel this morning is counterbalanced by an understanding that the legacy of Elizabeth of Windsor is complicated, at best. While there were many public declarations of sadness and grief from around the world, there were also many declarations of glee and exultation that she was finally dead. For as much as the Queen may have represented a sense of stability and calm to many of us she, also, represented oppression and privilege to many others around the world, too. Apparently there were fireworks and dancing in the streets of places such as Northern Ireland, a nation whose entire history is coloured red from the seemingly endless amount of blood spilled in conflicts with England (of which the Queen was head). Many countries in Africa celebrated the demise of a foreign ruler whose territorial ambitions caused untold hardship and deprivation to the local Indigenous populations. Even a country such as Jamaica is preparing lawsuits, as you read these words, against the British Crown for reparations for the slave trade a century ago. Part of the back story to the song, “No Woman, No Cry” by the great Bob Marley has to do with the consequences of British empire building upon the Jamaican population. *(You can read that post here). Finally, there are many younger people who have watched how the institution of the Monarchy reacted to the presence of strong young, intelligent, vibrant women such as Princess Diana and Meghan Markle. That they were expected to stand quietly by and temper their own enthusiasms rankled many modern women who took the view that Queen Elizabeth was a relic from a bygone era and that her demise may be what was necessary to start the modernization of the Monarchy that is needed if it is to remain relevant in an ever changing world.

Sir Edward Elgar…composer of the Enigma Variations.

I am sure that the debate over Queen Elizabeth’s legacy will rage on over the course of the next few days and weeks. However, my greater sense is that much of the politics of remembrance will give way to pageantry in the end. The British are known for many things and one of them is how to put on a good public show…whether that be for Royal weddings, funerals or coronations. So, I am predicting that the funeral for Queen Elizabeth will end up being one of the top stories from the year 2022. It will be a spectacle of emotion and expense. I also predict, with great certainty, that the Queen’s funeral will have a playlist and that one of the pieces of music on this playlist will be “Nimrod”, Variation No. 9 of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations Suite. There are many who state that, after the anthemic notes of “God Save the Queen/King”, which is England’s national anthem, the most patriotic English composition in history is “Nimrod” by Elgar. So, let’s talk a bit about Elgar’s Enigma Variations and why Variation No. 9, “Nimrod” is viewed as being so special.

One of the many examples of correspondence between Elgar and Jaeger regarding the Enigma Variations suite.

Edward Elgar is viewed as being the greatest English composer of all time. I wrote about him when we discussed his other great work, “Pomp and Circumstance”. *(You can read that post here). All throughout his life, Edward Elgar was plagued by periods of depression and self-loathing. One of the factors that helped to elevate him in the ranks of the great composers in history, besides talent, was that he was surrounded by a wonderful network of family and friends who all did a tremendous job at keeping his spirits up and helping Elgar to remain productive and to recognize the merit of the work he was creating. Edward Elgar, to his credit, understood who he was and how valuable his support network was to him in his career and in his personal life. So, in gratitude he created a suite of music that has become known as the Enigma Variations. There are fourteen individual variations that make up the entire suite. Each Variation is based upon some aspect of someone who was important to Elgar in his life. The tone of each dedicated variation was created to reflect some aspect of the relationship Elgar had with that individual person…some variations are more upbeat, some are more serious, some are romantic and so on. Variation No. 9 was dedicated to his long-time musical mentor and publisher, Auguste J. Jaeger. It was Jaeger, as much as anyone else, who was responsible for constantly reminding Elgar that he had worth as a composer and that his compositions were the equal of his heroes such as Beethoven. Jaeger was also one of Elgar’s most honest critics, often challenging him to work harder, to be better and to polish his work to an even finer edge. Edward Elgar came to rely on and appreciate Jaeger’s counsel. Thus, for Jaeger’s variation, Elgar created a soaring piece of music that is characterized by a consistent and steady musical structure, around which other chords rise and fall, building into a crescendo of fervor that never fails but to arouse an emotional response in the listener. Elgar entitled Jaeger’s variation as being “Nimrod” because, in German, the word Jager means “hunter” and in the Old Testament, the term “Nimrod” means mighty hunter before The Lord. When Elgar released his entire Enigma Variations suite, it was met with much approval from music critics, as well as from ordinary citizens. In time, Variation No. 9, “Nimrod” became the most popular of the variations. It has been performed at many prominent national events in England such as at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the funerals of Princess Diana and Prince Phillip, as well, “Nimrod” is played each year at the London Cenotaph to honour those who gave their lives in the many wars in which England has fought. Thus, I feel relatively safe in predicting that “Nimrod” will be played at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, too. It is just seems like such a British thing to do.

I have to be honest and admit that I am not overly sad about Queen Elizabeth passing away. Like anyone in her situation, I do feel a sense of sympathy for her family members for which she was not their Monarch but, instead, was their mother or grandmother. I am sure that her corgis are wondering where she is as well. But, more than anything, I am somewhat anxious as to what the future holds for England. Even though I live in Canada, what happens in places like England and France and the United States affects us. We are countries built upon a foundation of western democratic principles. As we have already witnessed under Donald Trump’s tenure at the helm of the US, the ripple effects of political instability in the land of any of our allies ends up washing up upon our shores, too. So, in the case of England, I wonder what the political fallout will be from the leadership vacuum her death represents. One thing that I do know is that King Charles has huge shoes to fill. I sincerely hope that he assumes his place at the head of the monarchy with much confidence and helps to inspire a nation and a Commonwealth to move forward with common purpose. One thing I am sad for is that Queen Elizabeth’s death removes one more female role model from the world’s stage. Do we really need another old white man in a position of authority? In any case, the immediate future will unfold in a very scripted manner, according to the formal government plans announced yesterday. There will be much time set aside for reflection and for public mourning. Her funeral will take place a week or so from now. In that time, I believe that Elgar’s Enigma Variation, Op. 36, No. 9. “Nimrod” will have a prominent airing and will come to be the anthem of her passing. So please take a moment to click on the link at the bottom of this post and listen to “Nimrod” for yourself so that you will recognize it when you hear it played live in the days and weeks to come in London. As you listen to it playing, know that it was written for someone who was viewed as being a true and resolute friend to the composer. Now that same thematic quality will be applied to the Queen of all of England and the Commonwealth of countries, too. Regardless of the politics of the moment, I wish the Queen’s family peace and I wish her a joyous, relaxed reunion with her husband and all of the corgis who went before her.

The link to the video for the composition, Enigma Variations, Op. 36, No. 9, “Nimrod” by Edward Elgar can be found here.

“Nimrod” was used to great effect in the closing scene of the recent movie, Dunkirk. This score, in combination with Winston Churchill’s “Never Surrender” speech are part of the fabric of British history. The link to the video for this scene can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Royal Family can be found here. ***You may sign a Book of Condolence via this website.

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

Wiegelied Op. 49, No. 4 or “Brahms’ Lullaby”…Composition #14/50: Keepin’ It Classy.

The stories behind the world’s great classical compositions.

Johannes Brahms.

Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4 or, as it is better known as “Brahms’ Lullaby”, is a composition that was created by the great German composer Johannes Brahms. Brahms is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is often included in a trio called “the three Bs”…Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. The story behind his most beloved and well known work….”Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a tale that is partially a product of the history of the times in which it was written (the mid 1800s), partially a product of how Brahms was trained in music as a child prodigy and finally, it is partially the product of how Brahms viewed women and how those views impacted his relationships with them all throughout his life. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No 4” is easily one of the most famous pieces of music the world has ever heard. It is known everywhere on the planet. The singing of it between parent and child is a universal sign of deep love between the two. However, there is a story to be told of how this lullaby came to be. It is a story that, once told, will change the way you sing and/or listen to Brahms Lullaby. So, sit back and relax and get ready for the story of the most famous lullaby ever created.

Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4.

First of all, let’s talk about the title of this composition. In German, any composition that has “lied” on the end refers to a piece of music in which poetry/spoken word and music are being combined in an artistic manner. *(“Lied” rhymes with the English word, “seed”). The German word, “wiegen” roughly translates as “cradle”. Thus, the title “Wiegenlied” can be translated as “Cradle song”. Now that we have that out of the way, Brahms’ “cradle song” was written as a lullaby. In classical music, a lullaby is a genre of composition and, as such there are rules about how it is constructed and the emotions it conveys. This brings us to Brahms and the influence of how he was trained as a musician. When Brahms was a much younger man, he preferred composing music as opposed to performing it in public. However, many of his early compositions were viewed as possessing much potential but also possessing many correctable structural errors. So, when Brahms was tutored by seasoned classical composers, he was given a thorough grounding in the “proper” traditional structure of classical music as laid down by some of the early giants in the field such as Franz Listz and Josef Haydn. Johannes Brahms took to his lessons and quickly gained a reputation for creating works that were structurally sound but that used that solid musical structure in new and original ways. Thus, when it came time for Brahms to create his famous lullaby, he followed the traditional format of the genre but, true to his level of genius, he added a personal twist that elevated it into the realm of one of the all-time great classical works ever created.

The traditional format of a lullaby is that it has two halves and that each half expresses a deeply held but differing emotion. During the mid 1800s when Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4”, lullabies were written primarily for females to sing. The reason for that was simply because the social mores of the time saw women as being the primary caregivers when it came to raising children. Thus, his lullaby was written for the female voice. In sticking to the traditional format for a lullaby, Brahms wrote the opening lines as an expression of love between a mother and her child.

Good evening. Good night.

With roses covered

With cloves adorned,

Slips under the covers.

The opening verse then concludes with the second half of this emotional exchange…the one that is filled with anxiety and fear.

Tomorrow morning, if God wills

You will wake once again.

When it comes to bedtime for babies, it was no different two hundred years ago than it is today in the sense that children need their sleep and mothers need their own restful time. However, what made it a much dicier and more precarious proposition back then was that the rates of infant mortality were much, much higher then than they are today. Back then, it was actually fairly common for babies to not wake up in the morning. So, for many mothers, the act of putting a child to bed at night also created a sense of danger. This meant that the act of singing a lullaby could possibly be the very last thing that many mothers would ever get to do with her baby. This emotion was revisited, night after night, for many months until the health of the baby became unquestioned.

The same sense of dread can be witnessed in the words of the famous children’s prayer, as can the format that sees the first half of the prayer being filled with love and the second half with anxiety:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

So, Johannes Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” for the female voice because it was traditionally mothers who saw to the bedtime routines of their children. He followed the structural format of compositions written in the lullaby genre. But, because he was known for using tradition as a springboard to creative innovation, here is the part of the story in which the creation of a children’s lullaby becomes a love story for the ages. It is a story that draws upon Brahms’ view of women in society and is based upon how he interacted with the important women in his life as a child/teenager.

Johannes Brahms grew up in a house that featured a mother and a father and two other siblings. From everything I have read, he was raised and cared for properly, wanting for nothing out of the ordinary. However, one thing that was clear about his childhood family home was that his mother and father were not truly in love with each other. Theirs was a platonic marriage. Some would even go so far as to deem it a loveless marriage. So, for much of his formative years, Brahms grew up never seeing his parents engage in affectionate behaviour of any kind. Consequently, he grew up believing that all women were reserved and stand-offish. That was until his early teens when he was hired to play the piano in what turned out to be a brothel. The brothel was billed as a theatre so Brahms’ parents had agreed to allow him to perform there because they assumed it would be before the usual music loving audience. However, instead of being on a stage before an adoring crowd, Johannes Brahms found himself beside a stage while women danced for the pleasure of a male audience. In time, the dancers at the brothel took to their innocent young pianist and began to shower him with good natured affection. Their affection was so completely different from how Brahms had watched his mother interact with his father that he didn’t really know how to respond. Thus, as Brahms grew into adulthood, he did so believing that women were either emotionally cold and reclusive or else, very promiscuous. In short, Brahms was confused when it came time for his own first serious relationship.

Bertha Faber…Johannes Brahms’ first love and the woman for whom Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4 was written.

That happened in his early twenties. He had begun composing cantatas for ensemble singing. In one of the choirs he was training, there stood a mezzo-soprano singer named Bertha Faber. In time, Bertha and Johannes began a friendship that extended beyond the confines of their choir practices. The two would share long walks and friendly dinners in public cafes. Soon, the sense arose that, perhaps, this could be more than simple companionship. But because Brahms didn’t really know how to go about exploring his feelings, Bertha took charge. On these walks she began finding quiet moments where they would stop and she would sing directly to him. One of the songs that she would sing was called “S’ Is Anderscht”. Here is where the story takes a magical turn. When you listen to “S’ is Anderscht”, you may detect some of the same notes and chords that are also present in Brahms’ Lullaby. That is no accident. Here is what happened. Even though Johannes Brahms felt genuine affection for Bertha Faber, his fear of commitment (based upon his parent’s chilly marriage) caused him to decide to break off their relationship after a number of years. Heartbroken, Brahms buried himself in his music. Faber, after a few years, met a new man and became married to him. A year or so after that, she gave birth to a son and then, a year later, was pregnant and about to give birth to a second child. It was while pregnant with her second child that Bertha was spotted by Brahms one day out in a public square. The sight of her instantly rekindled his feelings for her. They met and talked. Bertha brought him up to speed on the status of her life which, of course, included the fact that she was now married and was unavailable to Brahms. They parted shortly thereafter. They didn’t see each other again until one day just before she was to give birth. Brahms appeared before her with the completed lullaby in hand. What was special about this, beyond the fact that it was a thoughtful gesture, was that Brahms had taken the musical structure of the song Bertha used to sing to him when they were courting (“S’ Is Anderscht”) and embedded it within the musical structure of “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” as a counter-melody. In this way, whenever Bertha sang the lullaby to her new son, she would be singing parts of the love song she once sang for Johannes Brahms back when they were young and in love. To place a cherry firmly on the top of the sundae that is this love story, when Bertha gave birth to her new son, she insisted he be called, “Johannes”.

So now, whenever you hear that well known melody that denotes the world’s most famous lullaby, I hope that you will hear it and feel it differently. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a musical composition that was built upon a foundation of the love that existed between a mother and her child, as well as the love that can exist between two soulmates. Brahms’ Lullaby is one of the world’s most popular pieces of music for a reason. That reason is love.

The link to the video for the composition, “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4” can be found here.

The link to the video that explains the love story between Johannes Brahms and Bertha Faber better than I am able to can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Johannes Brahms Museum can be found here.

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

***The header photo shows the beautiful city of Hamburg, Germany. This is where Johannes Brahms was born and where he fell in love with Bertha Faber. The link to the official website for the city of Hamburg, Germany can be found here.

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

Keepin’ It Classy: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite #3, Movement #3 by Ottorino Respighi or, as it is better known as, the Opening Theme to the Film, “Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses”.

The stories behind the greatest classical compositions of all time

It may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration, but nevertheless I wish to take a few moments of your time to sing the praises of a movie franchise that made quite an impression on me and my daughters as they were growing up. The movie franchise I am referring to is none other than Barbie…you know, the doll from the Mattel toy company. That Barbie! The story of how we came to be devoted Barbie movie lovers dates back to the very earliest moments spent with our children. It serves to reinforce an important principle of parenthood which is that reading with your children from the day they are born reaps unimagined benefits down the road. Here is the story of how I became a Barbie movie fan and what that has to do with classical music.

Just one of the many terrific books in the Baby Einstein series.

From the very first moment our eldest daughter entered the world, my wife and I knew that something magical had happened. We were determined to love our child as fiercely as possible and raise her to be armed with as much confidence and knowledge as we possibly could so that she could take on the world on her own terms. One of the ways we decided to do this was by reading to our baby every day. Being teachers, my wife and I recognized the intellectual benefits for children to being exposed to language at an early age. But, even more than that, reading to our daughter gave us the opportunity to hold her close to our hearts each day while we read to her. This allowed for the pairing of warmth, security and happiness with the act of reading. In time, our daughter was old enough to hold and choose her own books. When she did, she explored the world of books with a sense of curiosity and excitement. In time, our daughter began to develop a tendency to read certain types of books so we began taking her to our public library and letting her have a say in what books we would borrow there. One of the book series that she became drawn to was the Baby Einstein series. These books were filled with shapes and colours and textures and flaps that opened and closed. But, they were also filled with short poems, works of Art and so on. It was a very enriching experience for our daughter and helped introduce her to people like Mozart and Brahms while doing so in an intellectually-appropriate manner for her young age. These Baby Einstein books led us to discover that there were DVDs available at the library, too. So, our daughter began looking in the DVD section of the children’s department as part of each visit, just as she did the storybook sections that were available to her. As our daughter grew some more, she began watching age-appropriate shows on TV and then looking to pair her viewing habits with books. So, before we knew it, we were inundated with books about Dora the Explorer, Caillou and The Berenstain Bears. Before long, our daughter discovered Barbie. That led to borrowing Barbie storybooks and then, eventually, she discovered a Barbie DVD called Barbie and the Three Musketeers. This is where my family’s love affair with the Barbie movie franchise began.

Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses Dvd.

As of the writing of this post, there are a total of 47 movies in the Barbie movie franchise. The series has gone through four re-boots along the way. Both of my daughters went through their Barbie movie phase but agree that the first quarter of the franchise had the best of the movies. So, let me tell you a bit about why my girls enjoyed the Barbie movies so much and why I recommend them so highly to any parent of children under the age of ten. First of all, just like the Baby Einstein books and DVDs, the early Barbie movies were all based on classic works from literature or the stage. So, our first DVD was the Barbie version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, The Three Musketeers. From there, the girls watched Barbie and Swan Lake, Barbie and the Nutcracker, Barbie as Rapunzel and Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, just to name a few. For my eldest daughter, in particular, watching these movies gave us the chance to introduce the original classic stories into our home. So, even though the animation was rudimentary, the storylines were faithful to the original classic works which made the experience of watching these movies worthwhile. Secondly, each movie contained a soundtrack that introduced new, original music but mostly featured the real versions of familiar classical compositions. It was through these Barbie movies that my daughters got to hear Swan Lake being performed, as well as the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. In Barbie and Rapunzel, the girls were introduced to “Symphony No. 9, Movement No. 3” by Antonin Dvorak. For me, the pinnacle of the integration of the Arts with the Barbie movies came when we watched Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Composer Ottorino Respighi.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is originally a fairy tale from Germany’s The Brothers Grimm. In the Barbie movie, the same fairy tale was told with long segments of ballet interspersed within the storyline. The opening theme of the movie used the classical composition “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, Movement No. 3” by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. The beautiful ballet scenes that formed the core of the story were accompanied by the music of Felix Mendelssohn and his “Symphony No. 4”. All in all, the movies were magical, made all the more so because of the wonderful music that was included in the soundtrack. As I have said before, using such rich pieces of music and combining them with classic tales well told all served my daughters very well. My eldest daughter, in particular, has developed a great love of reading and has challenged herself to read a wide variety of books from the present and from the past, involving a seemingly endless array of subject matter and themes.

The final aspect of the Barbie movies that made them such valued additions to our home was the fact that the storylines all involved strong female characters. There were no helpless damsels waiting for their prince to come and save them. All of the Barbie movies involved an element of “girl power”, which was important for my impressionable young daughters to grow up seeing. In addition to helping our daughters grow up to be literate and knowledgeable, we wanted them to be strong, confident, self-sufficient young women, too. So, having them watch movies based upon classic literature that used classical music gems, and then that showed the female characters being brave and innovative and loyal, all without the need to rely on male characters, added up to a big parenting win in our minds.

In the links below, I will show how the Barbie movies used the original compositions from Respighi and Mendelssohn in the films, as well as a few other styles of music that my daughters each happened to like. All in all, I am aware that the character of Barbie comes with some cultural baggage based upon how she was built and marketed during her heyday as one of the toys that were “meant for girls”. I took that attitude into my initial viewing of the very first Barbie and the Three Musketeers movie that we borrowed from our public library. But, I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of it in all regards. The Barbie movies are not Oscar-calibre films by any stretch, but as a way to expose your children to classic works of literature and music, they are excellent and I highly recommend them…especially the first ten-twelve in the series.

The link to the original composition of “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, Movement No. 3” by Ottorino Respighi can be found here.

The link to how “Ancient Airs and Dances” was used in the opening theme to the movie Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses can be found here.

The link to the original composition of “Symphony No. 4, Movements 1 and 3” by Felix Mendlessohn, can be found here.

The link to one of the scenes from the Barbie movie that used Mendlessohn’s “Symphony No. 4” can be found here.

The link to the movie trailer for Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses can be found here.

My eldest daughter’s favourite Barbie movie song is “Unbelievable” by EMF. The link to that can be found here.

My youngest’s daughter is a fashionista in real life. Not surprisingly, her favourite Barbie movie song involves fashion. The link to “Get Your Sparkle On” can be found here.

Keepin’ It Classy/The Stars of Stage and Screen: Bolero by Maurice Ravel (as used in the movie, “10”).

The stories behind the world’s greatest classical compositions…Composition 12/50.

***Editor’s Note: most classical works are fine to stand on their own when it comes to the telling of the story of how that piece of music came to be. But, today’s work is one whose story cannot be told without also discussing the cultural impact that it had as the centrepiece of a famous Hollywood movie. So, for the first time since I started creating the posts for the Keepin’ It Classy and the Stars for Stage and Screen series, we are having a crossover edition. This post will appear on the checklists for each series, as well as on the Spotify playlists for each series, too.

A Blake Edwards film, “10”.

In the 1970s, one of the most well-respected movie directors in Hollywood was a man named Blake Edwards. Edwards won many awards for his filmmaking: most notably for the classic series of comedic films starring Peter Sellers that were known as the Pink Panther movies. Blake Edwards grew up in a household steeped in the traditions of Vaudeville and of filmmaking in the black and white silent era. Thus, many of his formative influences were people who frequented his very own home such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. When Blake Edwards began producing his own films, slapstick comedy was often a feature. Because of his success in Hollywood, Edwards was able to attract A-list actors to work on his projects. So, when it was announced in 1978 that Edwards was making a new movie starring Julie Andrews and Dudley Moore, the excitement level within the film industry was real. Everyone expected the movie to do well. In 1979 the movie was released in theatres and quickly became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. That movie was called “10”. The cultural phenomenon came in the form of an unknown actress and model named Bo Derek. This is the story of why Bo Derek was always more than just a pretty face.

“Have you ever done it to Ravel’s Bolero?

The plot of “10” is fairly straightforward on the surface. It involves Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews being a couple who have reached middle age together. Dudley Moore is starting to tire of the love life he and Andrews share, and as a result his eyes begin to roam. For the most part, this involves using a telescope to spy on his neighbours as they enjoy their own intimate acts. However, one day while driving his car, Moore finds himself at a red light. As he glances over into the car beside him at the light, he sees that in the back seat sits a bride on her way to her wedding. The first time Moore sees the bride’s face is the first time we, as an audience, meet Bo Derek. Blake Edwards deliberately cast a complete unknown in the role because he wanted the reaction of the audience when seeing her face in that car to be pure and unsullied by any previous baggage she may have carried over from other roles in other movies. So, we see what Moore sees as he sees it. What Dudley saw was a flawlessly beautiful female face. Bo Derek was truly beautiful. In the movie, seeing her took Moore’s breath away. She became a fantasy that he just had to have become real. In pursuit of finding her, much physical comedy ensues. When Moore finally winds up next to her on a couch in her home, he is very quick to realize that the predator has become the prey and she has all of the power in this situation. He suddenly feels weak and inadequate. This is brought home when it is revealed by Derek’s character that she and her new husband have “an understanding” and that she is free to indulge her own fantasies whenever the opportunity arises. Then Derek asks him if he has ever “done it” to Ravel’s Bolero? Moore responds with an terrified gulp.

After “10” was released, there was some debate as to whether or not the movie made a feminist statement by having Bo Derek so confidently take charge and pursue her own sources of personal pleasure, or, as has so often been the case in Hollywood, was Edwards simply objectifying Derek and making a hit movie based solely upon her looks? Blake Edwards countered that he was always intent on making a movie that honoured strong women. He backed up his claim by telling reporters that his vision for making “10” came to him after learning of the story behind how Maurice Ravel came to make “Bolero”. This is that story.

Ida Rubenstein: the Russian woman who commissioned Bolero.

Maurice Ravel was a French composer. He was most noted for being a composer of music for ballet. Ravel was always keenly interested in the relationship between sound and movement, and therefore he created his compositions with the end goal of his music accompanying some form of dance. Because of his reputation for creating ballet scores, Ravel was approached by a woman named Ida Rubenstein in the hopes that he would create an original work for her to dance to on stage. Ravel was excited for the commission because Rubenstein was a well known figure in the international world of dance in the early 1900s. Rubenstein was a Jewish woman who was born in Russia at the turn of the century. Her family was fairly wealthy, which afforded Rubenstein the opportunity to indulge her artistic fantasies. So, she decided to become a ballerina. The unfortunate thing was that Rubenstein was never professionally trained. So, when she appeared on stage in Russia and attempted to dance in productions her lack of training exposed her as an amateur, and she became the subject of mockery in the dance world. However, Rubenstein was never one to shrink away from challenges. If she couldn’t dance in ballet productions with the premier ballet companies, then she would create her own ballets and write roles suited for her talents. Thus, Rubenstein became a player in the world of staging original ballets. But, more than that, Ida Rubenstein balked at being told that female roles had to conform to social expectations and that, as a result, she should only dance in demure roles. Because she controlled her own means of production, Rubenstein created roles for herself that often involved nudity and/or sexually-suggestive scenes. Her willingness to pose nude in public caused a scandal during the early 1900s. So, when she approached Ravel to commission some music for her latest ballet, Ravel was very aware of who Rubenstein was and the type of movement-inducing music that would please his new client.

“Bolero” is a term that is used to describe a form of couples dance that originated in Spain and Portugal. In many ways, it is a distant relative of flamenco dancing. The main difference is that bolero-style dancing is done at a much slower and more sensuous rate. Ravel’s “Bolero” composition is unique among works judged as being among the best of its genre because it is limited to only one movement. As we have seen in other posts in the Keepin’ It Classy series, most classical compositions are composed of between three to five movements. In classical music, a musical movement serves a purpose in the storytelling arc created by the composer depending on where it is placed in the overall structure of the composition. It is very rare for any classical work to have only one movement, especially one movement that comprises a fifteen-minute work. But, that is what Ravel created and presented to Rubenstein, who, in turn, loved it! The reason that Ravel’s “Bolero” was a perfect match for Rubenstein’s erotic style of performing is that the composition is built in a way that simulates love making…to put it bluntly. There are many who compare “Bolero” to the rock n’ roll classic “Stairway To Heaven”. In both cases, the songs are said to be structured so as to simulate sexual intercourse. They both start slowly and repeat themselves over and over, slowly building in intensity until climaxing in a crescendo of sound near the end, at which time, a slow, relaxed coda closes out each song. For Rubenstein, she knew exactly what Ravel had created and was happy to apply her brand of sensuality on stage. The end result of all of this is that Ravel’s “Bolero” gained a reputation as being the “sexiest” classical composition of all time.

French composer, Maurice Ravel.

Which brings us back to producer Blake Edwards. He was well aware of the background story behind “Bolero” and worked to create a fictional storyline around it. He always knew that he wanted someone in his movie who would be able to possess the irresistible beauty and sexual confidence of an Ida Rubenstein. That woman turned out to be Bo Derek. Until the end of his life, Blake Edwards always maintained that Bo Derek’s character was the strongest female role he ever created in any film he produced. As for composer Maurice Ravel, he completed “Bolero” in the 1920s and as part of his sales agreement with Ida Rubenstein was able to retain a composer’s credit on his work. Copyright laws had become standard policy by those days for composers. Consequently, when Blake Edwards licensed “Bolero” for his movie, “10”, he did so with a piece of music not yet in the public domain. As is true of almost all movies which are built upon a musical foundation, the soundtrack to the movie “10” sold millions of copies which, in turn earned millions of dollars for Maurice Ravel’s estate…a windfall his heirs continue to enjoy to this very day.

The link to the video of a live performance of “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel can be found here.

The link to the official movie trailer for the film “10” can be found here.

The link to the official website for my hometown classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, can be found here.

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

Keepin’ It Classy: Frederic Chopin, Piano Sonata #2 in B Minor, Opus 35 (or, as it is better known as, The Funeral March)…Composition #11/50.

Frederic Chopin.

Frederic Chopin is celebrated for the extraordinary depth and breadth of his work with the piano. Over the course of his career, Chopin wrote well over two hundred compositions that featured the piano as the primary musical instrument. Of the many great works he produced, his Marche Funèbre or “Funeral March” is among his most popular and best known. Chopin wrote his funeral march as part of a sonata. In order to better understand what that means and how to locate this famous work, I feel it is important to take a step back from Chopin’s life story and talk a wee bit about how composers of the Classical period constructed their compositions.

In Classical music, most compositions fall into one of two categories: cantatas (compositions that are meant to be sung) and sonatas (compositions that are meant to be played with instruments only). In the case of Chopin’s Funeral March, it is classified as a sonata because it is an instrumental composition that is played on the piano only.

During the Classical period, composers who wrote sonatas tended to organize their work into four segments. The reason they did this was because many sonatas were lengthy compositions, and as such, it was helpful for audiences to be able to understand a composer’s intentions based upon which portion of the sonata they were listening to. Even though sonatas were instrumental pieces of music, the composers were still attempting to tell a story of sorts. At many performances, the audience would be given a libretto, which was a booklet that described the composer’s intentions during the various segments of the sonata.

The segments of a sonata comprised a larger organizational term known as the sonata form. In layperson terms, the sonata form was broken down into four main segments:

1-The Exposition

In this introductory segment, a composer would introduce the main thematic outline of the sonata. So, in the case of Chopin’s Funeral March, during the exposition segment that starts off this work, you will hear hints of the famous march to come, but you won’t hear the full march yet. ***Believe me when I tell you that this funeral march is a piece of music that is universally recognized. You may be momentarily confused or uncertain as to whether or not you know this piece based upon what you hear in the exposition phase, but trust me…you know this! Hang in there and all will be revealed in time.

2- The Development

Like all stories that are written in books, after the main characters and themes have been introduced, the plot of the story unfolds. The same is true of classical sonatas. At the conclusion of the exposition phase, once the main musical themes have been introduced, a classical composer such as Chopin would then take those initial notes, structures and so on and would expand upon them, exploring them in greater detail…luxuriating in the splendor of the composition’s construction, if you will. Again, referring to books, the development phase of a classical composition can be thought of as being similar to the main portion of a book’s plot. When done properly, the music of the Development phase will leave audiences breathless with anticipation for the next segment, which is called Recapitulation.

3- Recapitulation

Using story structure as our guide, the Recapitulation phase serves as the grande finale. It is often the portion of the entire composition that audiences most remember and upon which the composer places most of his or her emphasis. It is during this phase of Chopin’s Funeral March that the tune that we are all familiar with is played. Again, let me reassure you that this is one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of music ever written. You will know that you are in the Recapitulation phase of this sonata when you hear its familiar notes begin to play.

4- The Coda

The Coda is best understood as being the conclusion of the composition. It is typically a very short segment that wraps up the composer’s message.

Frederic Chopin and George Sand in Paris in the 1830s.

Frederic Chopin was born in Poland. He fled Poland when it was invaded by Russia. He ended up settling in Paris, not long after the French Revolution in 1833. Chopin wrote the familiar (recapitulation) segment of his Funeral March shortly after arriving in Paris. Once there, he fell in love with the author, George Sand. As many of you may know, George Sand was the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was one of France’s most popular and famous writers. It was while living with George Sand that Chopin completed the other segments of his sonata. It is believed that his happiness at living in a city that was awash in exultation because of the revolution, as well as his love affair with Sand, was what caused Chopin to look back at his homeland of Poland with such wistfulness at what could have been there, too. When Piano Sonata No. 2 was performed for the first time, it was well received by audiences and critics alike. While there were some mild criticisms of the piece as a whole, in particular, how the segments flowed into and out of each other, there was unanimous praise for the famous recapitulation segment that bestowed upon the world the famous funeral march itself.

Chasing Chopin by Annie LaFarge.

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ Minor takes about twenty minutes or so from start to finish. When the time comes to listen to this piece yourself, you are more than welcome to listen to it in its entirety. However, if you wish to focus just on the famous funeral march segment, you now have a guide to knowing where to look within the composition as a whole. In either case, Frederic Chopin is certainly a composer worth knowing and enjoying. I am currently reading a book about his life, and in particular, his Funeral March, called “Chasing Chopin” by Annik LaFarge. I haven’t finished it yet but I am liking it so far and would recommend it to anyone wishing to know more about this great and talented man. And finally, I will close with a piece of Chopin trivia….yes, when Chopin passed away in 1849, the Funeral March was played in his honour at his very own funeral.

The link to the video for the composition, Piano Sonata No.2, in B minor, Op 35…The Funeral March by Frederic Chopin can be found here. ***Note: this is Movement #3 or the Recapitulation segment only.

The link to the official website for the Frederic Chopin Museum can be found here.

The link to the ClassicalFm 103.1 radio station that broadcasts from my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

***The photo used as header at the top of this post is of the Chopin sculpture that can be found in the composer’s beloved Warsaw, Poland.

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

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions of All-time…Composition 9/50: Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G Minor (or, as it is more commonly known), Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Serenade for Strings in G Minor.

Serenade for Strings in G Minor is one of Mozart’s most well known and respected compositions. It was written during a time period when he was composing the grand opera Don Giovanni. However, not much else is actually known about this piece. It did come to be known as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “A Little Night Music” because that was a notation Mozart used to record this composition in a log book of his work that he maintained. We only know this because after his death, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, sold many of his manuscripts to a publishing company in order to finance her life as a widow. That so much of Mozart’s great work was unappreciated or even unseen at all by others during his lifetime sheds a lot of light on his life and on how composers, in general, managed to earn a living. So, let’s take a few moments and learn a bit about that, shall we?

There were many tremendously talented composers who produced great music during the height of the Classical Renaissance from between 1750-1850. These composers lived their lives in varying states of recognition, influence and wealth. Often, their status had little to do with the quality of their compositions, which, generally speaking, were all of high quality. Instead, the standard of living enjoyed by a composer seemed to be more political and more dependent upon his ability to connect with powerful people in his immediate social realm. As such, here is a brief list of the main ways that composers such as Mozart were able to generate wealth from their work.

1 – The main way in which composers of the day earned a living was by having wealthy patrons. This means that the composer worked in the employ of a member of the aristocracy and produced work for their pleasure. Consequently, many of the compositions produced via the patronage system tended to be conventional in topic. This means that those composers created works that reflected the glory of God, or else the glory of those already in power. It also meant that composers created music that would be played during funerals or celebrations at balls. Thus, some of the most talented composers of all time created their life’s work at the behest of those who directly paid their bills and who often provided their accommodations and supplied the equipment (musical instruments and orchestra players) that enabled them to create the masterpieces that they did.

Constanze Mozart.

2 – In addition to creating compositions for wealthy patrons, many composers were also expected to be teachers as well. In higher society, it was an expectation that the children and wives of wealthy men would become competent in the Arts. For many, that included giving recitals. Thus, the giving of private music lessons was one avenue that allowed composers to supplement their income outside of the composition circuit. Not surprisingly, having access to the children and wives of the wealthy was not something attainable by just anyone. Political connections helped composers gain entry into the world of the upper class and with it, access to the best paying students. In the movie, Amadeus, which is a fictionalized account of Mozart’s life, there are many scenes in which Mozart and, separately, his wife, Constanze, can be seen begging officials of the Royal Austrian Court for access to well-paying students. According to the movie/play, Mozart chafed at being restricted to the conventional musical norms of his time, and he often refused or was unable to “play the political game” that was expected in polite society circles. Consequently, his personality grated upon the nerves of those in positions of authority, and therefore he was purposely steered toward students of lesser means and influence during his lifetime (which ended at age 35).

3 – A third method by which composers could earn a living was by creating symphonies and operas for public viewing in theatres and opera houses. Obviously, not all classical music was created solely for members of the Royal Court. There were many plays and operas that were commissioned by the owners of opera houses and other public venues. In these cases, the opera house owner would either pay a lump sum to a composer for a commissioned work or else, more often than not, would offer a composer a share of the profits that his opera would generate. Again, politics would come into play because a composer whose work was favoured by those in power could count on those connections to bring people to the theatres. If, however, a composer had fallen out of favour or was just starting out, then those elite personalities could simply ignore this composer’s new work and consequently, use their influence to cause common folk to stay away. Again, in Mozart’s case, many of his greatest public works opened and closed in relatively short order due to the lack of political support he had in Vienna at the time. It was only years later, after his death, that the originality and creative genius of his work came to be appreciated by mass audiences and critics.

As you can see from just these three examples, a composer’s ability to earn a living during the years 1750-1850 was highly dependent on the patronage and political connections of others. It wasn’t until the late 1800s/early 1900s that the independence of composers was allowed to flourish. The thing that allowed that to happen was something called copyright law and royalties. Prior to the late 1800s, whenever a composer created a musical composition, it was either given directly to the patron who had commissioned it (at which time the patron assumed ownership), or else it went into the public domain where the work was free to be performed or altered by anyone. As we have seen in previous posts, some composers tried to protect the sanctity of their work by destroying it upon their death so that lesser musicians couldn’t alter it and ruin it in the eyes of the composers. So, the idea of retaining ownership and control of one’s work was something that a lot of composers felt strongly about as the Classical Renaissance rolled along. The first instance where a composer was granted a form of copyright occurred in Paris and concerned a composer who objected to his work being performed for profit by others in cafés throughout the city. A lawsuit was launched to either stop the concerts, or else to pay the composer a fee for each performance (or a royalty, as it has come to be known). The verdict came down on the side of the composer. From that point onward, especially since the invention of the printing press meant that sheet music was now able to be produced cheaply and in greater quantities, composers had a bit more of an ability to control how their creative work was used and were able to profit from their own labour in ways that were determined as much by them as by political connections.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As we have seen in many music posts about Rock ‘n Roll, it wasn’t really until the 1960s that songwriting copyright really became the tool that it is today in terms of generating income for the composer. This was especially true in the early days of Hip Hop when rappers sampled liberally from the work of others in creating many of their own unique songs. Having legal control of creatively produced work is important in that it helps the composer protect the integrity of their composition, as well as ensuring that they are rightfully compensated for their efforts. Not that I am comparing myself to the likes of Mozart, but you will note that I end all of my posts with a copyright disclaimer. I have no immediate plans to take these posts and reproduce them in book form, but, if I did, claiming copyright privileges as I go gives me some legal protection should anyone decide to copy my work and release my work as theirs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not have the legal ability to stake a claim to his own work. It sounds difficult to believe that this was the case but it was. Because he lived his creative life at odds with the existing musical patronage establishment, Mozart did not often profit from his creative genius during his lifetime. Consequently, brilliant work such as Serenade for Strings in G Minor or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ended up being sold for pennies after his death. It is quite likely that Mozart never heard this particular composition played publicly in his lifetime. That makes me sad…as songs in G Minor tend to do.

The link to the video for Serenade for Strings in G Minor can be found here.

The link to the official website for a museum dedicated to Mozart’s life can be found here.

The link to the classical radio station in my hometown can be found here.

Academy Award winning movie, Amadeus.

The link to the video from the movie Amadeus which shows Mozart’s wife attempting to sell his original compositions at the Royal Court in order to help him gain access to well-paying music students, can be found here.

Header illustration link 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 may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions of All-Time…Composition #8/50: 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In the 1960s, when I was a child, we only had two TV channels that we could access. They were both from our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; one channel was CBC in English and the other channel was the CBC in French. As the 1970s dawned, we thought we had moved into the big time because a private broadcasting company called CTV became available. Suddenly there was a wider variety of programming including shows that originated in the United States. A decade or so later, the television universe expanded again with the introduction of something called cable TV. With the advent of cable, a dozen new channels became available at the push of a button on a huge converter box that sat on our coffee table in the living room. The real draw to cable TV was that about half of the new channels that became available actually were American channels. Growing up in Nova Scotia meant that the American channels that we accessed via cable TV all broadcast out of Bangor, Maine (which was the closest US city with its own television stations). Because Maine was considered to be part of the “New England” states, the focus of much of the US cultural coverage on TV from there was centered on Boston. So, I grew up watching the Boston Red Sox baseball team, the Bruins hockey team and the New England Patriots football team as much as I ever did my own Canadian teams (which, at the time, revolved around Toronto and Montreal). Because I was able to immerse myself in the cultural traditions of two different nations, many aspects of American history and culture became very familiar to me and, as such, became part of the fabric of my own identity to a certain degree. This brings me to the Canadian and American national holidays which are celebrated on July 1st and July 4th, respectively. For me, those two holidays became one long weekend of festivities. There were the actual events I attended in my hometown on Canada Day, and then those were bookended by the July 4th celebrations we would watch on cable TV. Not surprisingly, the July 4th evening concert by The Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of conductor Arthur Fiedler always seemed to serve as the finale for that long weekend of festivities. The finale of that concert was always the “1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Thus, the booming of sixteen real cannons is something I have always associated with my childhood and with my relationship to America.

Childhood is a safe haven for more innocent memories and times. In those days, politics was not part of my thought process. I was proud to be a Canadian citizen. I believed that my country was one of the nice guys on the world stage. I viewed America as being our friends and Americans as being basically good people. There was never any thought of the fact that both countries were built upon foundations of colonization and oppression of indigenous cultures. Back then, it was all hot dogs and fireworks. Good times if you were a wide-eyed, well-behaved white teenage boy like I was.

However, the passing of time has revealed that much of what I believed to be true as a child was, in fact, not true at all. One of the simplest examples comes in the form of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Until very recently, I always regarded this composition as being an American patriotic tune. It is not. I believed that this composition was about The War of 1812 and that the reason it is played on the Fourth of July is because of the importance of that war to America and Canada solidifying their status as independent countries, apart from England. I was wrong to believe that, too. The final pinprick into the heart of my nostalgic bubble came in the form of the realization that this most famous of compositions by Tchaikovsky was one that he wrote under duress and always hated because of the crass showiness of how it plays out. So, if the composer hated it and it has nothing to do with America or the Fourth of July, how did the “1812 Overture” become such an integral part of American culture, and by osmosis, my own cultural upbringing? Let’s find out.

Napoleon invades Russia in 1812.

Believe it or not, the “1812 Overture” is actually a composition that chronicles a famous military victory for Russia against Napoleon Bonaparte. Way back in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte had a reputation as being a cunning military strategist. Without going into the entire geo-political history of Europe at the time, let me tell you that in 1812, Russia found itself the target of an invasion by Napoleon and the mighty French Army. Like many nations who have tried to conquer Russia, France made great headway at first. Not far from Leningrad, a fierce battle was fought. This battle was called The Battle of Borodino. Napoleon’s army eventually prevailed but at the cost of two thirds of its soldiers. Russia then played a trick on Napoleon. They abandoned Moscow. Napoleon mustered the remaining troops at his disposal and marched into Moscow with the complete expectation that he would be greeted as a conquering hero and that terms of surrender would be discussed at that time. However, when French troops arrived, they found Moscow deserted. After a few weeks, Cossack resistance fighters burned Moscow to the ground, leaving Napoleon’s army trapped in a barren, deserted city, far from their supply lines. No Russian emissary ever came to negotiate with Napoleon. Eventually his troops began to starve and became dispirited. With health and morale plummeting, Napoleon made the tactical decision to withdraw from Moscow. However, the French retreat was plagued with hardships brought on by the cruel Russian winter, as well as by guerilla war tactics from what was left of the Russian army. By the time Napoleon made it to the Russian/Polish border, only 20,000 French troops remained from an invasion force that totalled almost half a million when the campaign began. Although Napoleon won all of the major battles his army fought, he ended up losing the war. Three years later, Napoleon would meet his Waterloo at the hands of The Duke of Wellington. Shortly thereafter, exile to the Island of Elba would seal his fate.

Historical fiction is a time-honoured literary genre. In the 1880s, a Russian writer named Leo Tolstoy wrote a novel that you may have heard of called War and Peace. As part of the storyline to this book, Tolstoy recounted the mighty victory enjoyed by Russia over Napoleon and the mighty French army. The publication of “War and Peace” sparked renewed interest in this aspect of Russian history. As the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Borodino approached, the Tsar called for commemorative celebrations to be held. These celebrations were to include parades and concerts. As part of this call to the Arts community, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to create a patriotic piece of music for the Tsar. He was told that it needed to be more loud than quiet, more forceful than subtle. He was told that the Tsar, himself, was expecting Tchaikovsky’s most rousing anthem to date. The piece that Tchaikovsky ended up writing was called The Year 1812, Solemn Overture, Op. 49. As noted earlier, Tchaikovsky hated it. He thought it was loud and crude but it was what was demanded of him by the Tsar who, in turn, thought the “1812 Overture” was perfect.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The “1812 Overture” clocks in between 12-15 minutes, depending on the orchestra performing it. In that time, Tchaikovsky created a complete timeline of the military campaign. There are periods where Russian music dominates the composition. At other times, the French national anthem is woven into the score to show how Napoleon’s advance into Russia threatened their nation. In the end, the piece concludes with celebratory cannon blasts to signifying the exultation felt all across Russia because of this great victory over a mighty foe.

History is a murky business. This post will be published on July the 4th. No doubt, as the day draws to a close, orchestras all across America will strike up the band and play a Russian military song, while Americans revel in their own patriotism, believing the music to be about them. I have no doubt that many people in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, will tune their televisions to their local cable PBS channel and will watch the concert from the comfort of their Canadian living rooms. As for me, I will participate in Canada Day, and to a lesser extent, July 4th, by wearing an orange shirt dedicated to the memory of those Indigenous children whose bones were ground and mixed together to help create the foundation upon which these two countries were built. Like my boy, Tchaikovsky, I am sure I will think the overt celebratory nature of the day is just a tad too much.

The link to the video for the composition, “The 1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be found here. ***Note: the composition begins at the 2:00 mark.

The link to the official website for Classical 103.1…the classical music radio station located in my town of Cobourg, Ontario, can be found here.

The link to the report of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here.

My daughter and I picking strawberries on July 1st.

***Many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island are recommending that Canadians spend July 1st in sombre reflection with regard to the true nature of how Canada came to be a country and the price paid by Indigenous Peoples as part of that process.

Fireworks or thoughtfulness? I will leave that decision up to you.

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