Tag Archives: 1001 classical works

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 34/501Title: The Firebird
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1910

As I was cooking my Russian Easter food we decided to go a bit further. We had a side table with a disassembled Russian doll and, as I was prepping the Kulebiaka for the oven, we put on some Russian music Рwhich meant listening to The Rite of Spring and The Firebird. Of course a lot of this was covered by kitchen noises, so I listened to a different rendition of it from YouTube where you see the conductor get more and more dishevelled at the piece progresses.

When first listening to¬†The Firebird¬†I didn’t know it was by¬†Stravinsky (just as a note, I wasn’t the one who put it on, I was just told this was Russian classical music), so I am very proud of myself for recognising that this piece has a frenetic kinship with¬†The Rite of Spring.¬†I know it’s a small thing, but me being able to link these pieces together by the sound of them really shows that this 1001 list is starting to educate me.

This is another piece of music that I have listened to for the list that originated as a ballet. As a piece, it tells the Russian folk tale of The Firebird (for a good re-telling of this, I would recommend the Myths and Legends podcast episode); something that is lost when just listening to it.

Still,¬†The Firebird¬†is notable for being the piece that brought Stravinsky to wider attention and helped him to become viewed as one of the (then) new generation of Russian composers. It will be interesting to see how he will develop from here and after The Rite of Spring¬†whereupon he became more independent and delved into Neoclassicism… but I probably won’t get there for a long time.

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ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 33/501Title: Symphony No. 6
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Nationality: German
Year:
 1808

Well, I did say that I was going to try and cross off all the¬†Fantasia¬†pieces before progressing further in the¬†1001 Classical Works¬†list – so today’s post will be awash with multi-coloured pegasi and centaurs depicting racial stereotypes.

Symphony No. 6 has the secondary title of the Pastoral Symphony as it is meant to evoke thoughts of the goings on in the countryside. Each movement (of the five in total) is written to depict events; unusual for Beethoven who worked more melodically and abstractly.

If you have seen¬†Fantasia¬†you’ll know exactly the images that Beethoven tried to create, but even without the help of Disney there is a lot you could get when given the secondary title. The fact that the first three lead into a grand party celebrating the great outdoors (I imagined it as a celebration of the first blossom as a signifier of the end of winter) is showcased by the jubilance of the woodwinds and brass section.

It’s the fourth section, which depicts a thunderstorm, where I fell back into the Disney images. The infant pegasus being tossed about by the wind and the unicorn foal trapped by the rising river were images too strong to be ignored (probably because I used to find them upsetting). Even with those images in mind it’s hard to deny the power of the timpani in it’s role of the striking lightning (all the more powerful as this is the only movement featuring percussion).

Did I get more out of this listen because this is a piece I knew and could focus on more minute details? Maybe, but that doesn’t stop this being an interesting, enjoyable and worthy piece of classical music. There’s still a lot more¬†Fantasia¬†to go, so let’s see which way I go next time.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 32/501Title: The Nutcracker
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1892

There are times where the only thing that helps me concentrate at work is some classical music (or ambient music like¬†Digital Rain¬†by Johnny Jewel). I have pretty much done Chopin’s¬†Etudes¬†and Beethoven’s¬†Kreutzer¬†to death by this point so, for whatever reason, I decided to pop on¬†The Nutcracker.

Despite only writing three ballets, it is hard to deny that Tchaikovsky didn’t write three classics. With¬†The Nutcracker, Swan Lake¬†and¬†Sleeping Beauty (which I’m actually seeing in a few months) to his name, it makes me wonder why he didn’t write more of them. He obviously has an incredible talent for them and having listened to¬†The Nutcracker¬†on Spotify… well I just want to see it live now.

Having read up on the story that the music is written for, I do wonder whether knowing this even matters. In the end, for a ballet like The Nutcracker, it really is a bunch of beautifully composed and choreographed set pieces loosely stuck together with a narrative thread.

I mean, it is easy enough to deduce from the music alone that the second act of the ballet is the more fanciful and far more interesting than the first one. I’m likely not alone in saying that my favourite section of music in this ballet is the¬†Divertissement in the second act – where the different residents of the Kingdom of Sweets dance for the heroine (the Chinese and the Russian dances being my favourites).

Now, I swear that I’ll be done with the¬†Fantasia¬†music soon. It might make sense for me to prioritise it over the rest of the list; just so that I am able to listen to more music with fresh ears and fresh images in my brain. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to have the dancing thistles in my head for the ‘Russian Dance’, but I like to be able to think of my own interpretations rather than remember someone else’s.

At least when I see Sleeping Beauty live I will be able to associate that music with the live ballet more than the animated film. Well, live in hope.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Music for the Royal Fireworks by George Frideric Handel (Post #1000!)

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 31/501Title: Music for the Royal Fireworks
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Nationality: German/British
Year:
 1749

Yet another piece of music that, once it started playing, I easily recognised. It really speaks to the power of music that memories of primary school came flooding back to me once the Overture got into full swing. You see, whenever we had school assembly there would be classical music playing on a portable stereo at the front of the room. I bet that I’ll be getting a few more flashes from the past as I go through this list – it’ll be interesting to see what the next piece will be.

The name¬†Music for the Royal Fireworks¬†doesn’t leave much up to interpretation as to the purpose of Handel’s composition. Similarly, the title immediately flags up who send forth the commission. So, when listening to this piece, I tried to imagine how this would pair with fireworks – which means that this would have been more a good piece of background music than something that emulated the fireworks. This makes sense as that would have been a nightmare to sync up.

What makes this very different from the other pieces I have done so far is the amount of brass and woodwind. The version I listened to was the orchestral one that Handel created after the original stringless piece had served its purpose. It doesn’t take away from the strength of the blown instruments by having some of them replaced with strings; the brass and woodwind are still very much the centrepiece.

I know that I’m probably going to have to do a longer piece again soon… maybe an opera? That could be fun if I found a way to listen to one with a crib sheet.


This was a complete coincidence, but music for fireworks does feel rather apt for this landmark. When starting this blog back in March 2014 I, to be completely honest, did not fully expect to have kept it up for a whole year Рlet alone reach the 1000th post as I have done today.

Compared to the original idea of the blog, where I would be going through a more specific list of things, the scope really has exploded into a huge number of lists that I can only hope will be completable in my life. Still that’s kinda the fun isn’t it.

Thinking back on my headspace when I started this blog, things were incredibly different. It was a few months after my depression diagnosis and I was looking for some sort of meaning (having been in effective life hibernation for 3 years). Boy, am I in a better place now. Sure, I could still afford to physically healthier – but I have a a great marriage, a mortgage, a job I adore and money to follow my travel passion. For the moment life is good, and I’m going to make the best of it that I can.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Sa√ęns

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 30/501Title: The Carnival of the Animals
Composer: Camille Saint-Sa√ęns
Nationality: French
Year:
 1886

I needed this album. All the music that I have listened to for this classical list is so serious or pious that it is easy to forget that there were composers out there who were having a bit of fun with the art form. This is why I was so keen on listening to¬†The Carnival of the Animals –¬†a series of short pieces that take cues from different animals. Seriously, this is the antidote to yet another choral piece.

When listening to¬†The Carnival of the Animals¬†it helps to have the track list to hand to find out which animal you are meant to be listening to. Some of the pieces, such as the ‘Kangaroos’ and the ‘Aviary’, are pretty obvious whilst others, like the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Fossils’, need a bit of helpful clarification.

Speaking of ‘Fossils’, it’s criminal that Saint-Sa√ęns’¬†Danse Macabre¬†doesn’t feature on the list. Therefore the small rendition of this piece within ‘Fossils’, which happens just before a short rendition of¬†Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,¬†is as close as I’ll get to that on this list.

Getting slightly back on track, it always makes me happy when, for this list, I am able to find a context to classical pieces I know from osmosis. Within¬†The Carnival of the Animals¬†there are two of these which now have homes in my internal Rolodex. The first is ‘Swan’, which I am not sure how I know it but there was a glimmer of recognition when I heard it; the other is ‘Aquarium’ whose beautiful cascades have brought me joy on many occasions and I am thrilled to know its origins.

I know that I am going to have to go back to something a bit more serious for the next classical piece (and probably all the others to follow), but it was nice to take a bit of a sojourn amongst the animals of the carnival.

 

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 29/501Title: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Composer: Thomas Tallis
Nationality: English
Year:
 1565

It’s been a while since the last classical piece. With the exception of the songs list, this may be the list with the longest gaps between posts. Most of this is because the sheer breadth of classical music in the book (and my lack of accompanying knowledge) makes choosing the next piece incredibly hard. The other part is because the default position of going chronologically which, for the moment, means more choral music.

With Lamentations of Jeremiah I think that I have finally found something a bit different in this early choral music. Linguistically this is a very interesting piece as the lines come from the original Hebrew, which makes for a nice change from the Latin pieces that I have heard so hard.

Also, the tone of the piece is completely different. Where the other early choral pieces pretty much had their tonal dial set to ‘praise God’, Tallis’¬†Lamentations of Jeremiah¬†is religious music that’s actually melancholic. Similarly, this piece is done with a single singer taking on the line while the others act as back up – this works remarkably well with the melancholic tone as it helps to give that degree of isolation.

This was one of the shorter pieces that I have so far done for the classical list, which probably helped with my actually enjoying this. After all how¬†Lamentations of Jeremiah¬†outstay its welcome when it’s over in less than 15 minutes?

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 28/501Title: The Rite of Spring
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1913

Previously for the classical music list I listened to Bolero having been inspired by a rather heartbreaking edition of the Radiolab podcast. For this post I listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as a companion piece because of two things that they have in common. Firstly, and more cosmetically, Bolero and The Rite of Spring have had stories as part of Radiolab. The more interesting commonality is how these two have been used in cartoons.

You see, as I mentioned before, Bolero was used in Fantasia spoof Allegro non troppo as the backdrop to a cartoon about evolution in a fantastical/alien setting. The Rite of Spring, on the other hand was used for the more serious evolution piece in Disney’s Fantasia. So you see these two pieces are united through real-life and animated science stories.

As someone who grew up with Fantasia on VHS, it proved practically impossible to listen to The Rite of Spring without thinking about it within the context of the cartoon. I would listen to flourishes and see the soaring pterodactyls. I’d hear outrageous blasts from the horn section and envisage the quaking of the earth and the creation of mountains. It really speaks to the power of the power of those Disney images and, actually, the weight of responsibility on taking pieces like The Rite of Spring and interpreting them outside of the composer’s original vision.

One look at the track titles (and even the title of the whole piece) demonstrates that this piece was intended to represent a pagan ritual whose endpoint is a sacrifice and a whole lot of dancing. Seeing how this was written for a ballet, I can only imagine just how visceral some of these dances would have been.

Now, I didn’t just listen to the Fantasia version of this on earphones. I figured that Disney would have altered the arrangements to better suit their visuals… and I was right. If anything, the original music is a whole lot darker than what I first got to know as a child. Some parts are more muted and others incredibly more complex. As this had to be a film that also appealed to children I can see why some edits were made, but it does dumb down the piece somewhat.

I’m not sure if it’s because Stravinsky sought to create something dissonant or because of my own memories of the battle between the stegosaurus and the T-rex, but there parts of this piece that generated a visceral reaction. At times I could feel myself getting a bit on edge, and others a bit upset. The 30+ minutes is an interesting experience and one that should be experienced outside of the Disney scope. Might be worth seeking out a YouTube video of the ballet at some point in the future.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Bol√©ro by Maurice Ravel

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 27/501Title: Boléro
Composer: Maurice Ravel
Nationality: French
Year:
 1928

I have been in the market for a new educational podcast for a long time and, for whatever reason, decided to take the leap into the¬†Radiolab¬†back catalogue. One of the first episodes I listened to was a short from 2012 entitled ‘Unravelling Bolero‘, where they talk about Ravel and a painter called Anne Adams and the mental deterioration that they both went through before dying. In this podcast the experts posit that there are signs in¬†Bol√©ro¬†that provide a hint of the neurological disorder Ravel would eventually die of.

With this in mind it was extra interesting to listen to this piece of music. You see, in the 15 minutes of Boléro we have the same melody repeated over and over and over again by various sections of the orchestra. As the repeated melody circulates around the orchestra 17 times you can just feel it build and build until the end where it feels like they are going to explode.

There is a limit to how much you can repeat the same melody and I think Ravel pretty much hits this with Boléro. However there is a hypnotic beauty to it, which was used to brilliant effect in this clip from Allegro non troppo (an Italian pastiche of Fantasia) which depicts a fictional sequence of evolution:

 

This will not be the last piece of classical music of Ravel that I listen to for this list Рfar from it in fact Рbut this is one of the final pieces of his music to be featured. Considering his mental decline after creating Boléro, this feels all the more poignant.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Diferencias by Antonio de Cabez√≥n

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 26/501Title: Differencias
Composer: Antonio de Cabezón
Nationality: Spanish
Year:
 1560s

It’s safe to say that, according to the chronology of this list, we are now firmly in the renaissance. I say this because suddenly this has gone from music you’d expect to hear in a church to something that would form the soundtrack of computer games like Civilization¬†or¬†Crusader Kings II.¬†Probably not the best place to be setting the bar, but these are my still touchstones of mine.

It’s so refreshing to be in the earliest reaches of the classical music list and finally come across something where I don’t have to listen to an hour of vocal harmonies engaged in a loudness war. Okay, that was harsh… but now that this list seems to be moving into the more instrumental territory, there is more incentive for me to pick up a copy on YouTube or Spotify and give it a go.

So, to give a bit of context to this, the composer of these classical pieces was blind from early childhood. Despite this difficulty he still found himself under the patronage of the Isabella of Portugal, the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Thanks to both his talent and connections de Cabezón became one of the most important Spanish composers of this era.

Listening to these¬†Diferencias¬†is just feels so incredibly different to a lot of the music that has come before it. Maybe because this doesn’t feel like music that would have been played for religious ceremonies. Instead of vocals we have lute, clavichord and a woodwind instrument I can’t quite work out (I want to say fife, but I’m probably wrong).

This feels like music that would have set the scene at a formal gathering at court. I’m not sure whether this necessarily music that people would have attended a recital of but it was clearly known enough to influence the next composer on the list: Thomas Tallis

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Lieutenant Kij√© Suite by Sergei Prokofiev

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 25/501Title: Lieutenant Kijé Suite
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1934

Another classical piece so soon? And one that broke the streak of different blog entries? This should be a special piece of music! Well to me it is and, now that I have listened to the whole suite, it has become even more so.

To start of with, I picked¬†Lieutenant Kij√© Suite¬†as the next classical piece as it’s ‘little grey dove’ refrain from the Romance movement is the only piece of classical music that I was actually able to memorise during the mandatory school music lessons (I am not counting ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on the recorder as a classical piece’). Now that I hear this refrain within the context of this classical piece I love it all the more.

What I did¬†not¬†realise was that the¬†Lieutenant Kij√© Suite¬†also contained the classic ‘Troika’ movement. So when I first listened to this at work and this piece of ¬†Christmas classical music started to play I became a mess of goosebumps for a solid four minutes.

The whole suite itself has a rather weird history. Originally the¬†Lieutenant Kij√© Suite¬†was music to a 1934 film of the same name. So impressed with Prokofiev’s work on the soundtrack, the Moscow Opera Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to turn his fragmented musical pieces into a fully fledged piece for an orchestra. It was part of the Soviet Union happily welcoming¬†Prokofiev back into the fold after his return to his homeland after spending a lot of his time Paris.

As a suite of music it is split into five distinct movements, with the whole piece lasting 20 minutes. Since this being derived from different parts of a movie soundtrack it feels like an EP of 5 distinct tracks than a suite of music… or maybe I just need to start getting used to this terminology as I investigate more classical music.

In any case, for the merit that it gave me incredible goosebumps and it almost made me cry out of joy the¬†Lieutenant Kij√© Suite¬†is easily one of the best pieces that I have heard so far for this list. I’ll probably be back in the world of church music for the next classical piece… so someone please pray for me.