Tag Archives: 1001 classical works

🎻♫♪ – Salome by Richard Strauss

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 49/501Title: Salome
Composer: Richard Strauss
Nationality: German

I posted a near identical picture to today way back in December for my post about the ballet Sleeping Beauty. That was an evening that was enjoyed so much, to the point of immediately looking on the website of the English National Opera to see if there was another production that caught our eye – which is how we ended up with tickets to see their version of Salome. 

This is being posted nearly half a year since that production ended, so review of this particular version are easily Googleable. I think that a lot of what I saw can be easily summarised by Tatianna from RuPaul’s Drag Race“choices”.

What unfolded over an hour and fifty minutes was a baffling series of choices in an effort to modernise this opera. The fact that Salome is a story of necrophilia and incest means that there is no real need to bring the subject matter up to date in order to facilitate a reaction. Still, this did make for a different form of entertainment than I expected (such as marvelling at the gigantic purple headless horse having it’s knitted entrails pulled out) there were some things that I felt cheated out of – such as a good interpretation of the infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (because twerking has no place in opera!).

Anyway, let’s divorce this interpretation from the music. The orchestra were fantastic and most of the vocal performances were excellent – which means I can actually talk about this on a purely musical level as I have done with the likes of Porgy & Bess and The Nutcracker.

The orchestra required to pull off Salome is huge and has provided me with an opportunity to see the triangle in action. There are a large number of recurring motifs throughout the opera, but for the most part the music really helps to heighten the feelings of discomfort at what you are seeing unfold.

A lot of the music that what we hear is dissonant and, at times, unnerving. Even the Arabesque ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ is ominous and brought to mind The Rite of Spring (despite the twerking). It’s a brilliant score and, on the night, was well executed.

The story of Salome itself is utterly bizarre and I wish that the staging had allowed me to appreciate it all the more. I mean is it too much to ask for a model head to be used for the severed head of the prophet Jochanaan instead of a plastic bag filled with (what I assume is) pink slime.


🎻♫♪ – Symphonies nos. 6-8 by Joseph Haydn

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 48/501Title: Symphonies nos. 6-8
Composer: Joseph Haydn
Nationality: Austrian

On the commute to work today I finally got around to listening to an episode of the Classic FM podcast Case Notes. It’s a limited run series where the worlds of classical music and true crime combine – with the first episode being about the missing head of Joseph Haydn. During the episode they played excerpts from a number of his pieces and, therefore, it only made sense to listen to something of his in full for my next classical piece.

Symphonies nos. 6-8 are the first piece on the list when going chronologically and were all composed in 1761. They were given the nicknames of Le matin, le midi and le soir because of the beginning of Symphony No. 6 having a slow sunrise feel… and since these three pieces belong together the remaining nicknames followed suit.

The interesting thing about these three pieces is the number of solos for a variety of instruments that pepper the piece, apparently a way for him to showcase the talents of the original members of the orchestra and curry favour with them.

It’s interesting historically but, at least for me, these weren’t the most engaging pieces that I have listened to for the list. I think more for me will come in later pieces, such as the Surprise symphony but that’ll just have to be something for a later date.

🎻♫♪ – Venus and Adonis by John Blow

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 47/501Title: Venus and Adonis
Composer: John Blow
Nationality: English

Kinda wish I had the wherewithal to craft a really cool and believable April Fool’s post and then cross that off my bucket list, but I don’t think that a damp evening in September is the optimum time to write that. Instead today’s post will be about, what is touted as, the first English opera. I use the word ‘touted’ because I agree with the other side of the debate that this is close to being an opera, but not quite.

The term that best fits this piece is a ‘masque’, although there are certainly some operatic leanings in the vocals. However the lead in this piece is the music and the singing is a good supplement to a rather beautiful backdrop of music that brings to mind European royal courts in the times of the Tudor monarchs.

Whilst I have listened to operas in English (more recently, Porgy and Bess) but it was novel to hear this sort of musical backing having discernible English language lyrics. I am so used to music from this period, if it has any lyrical content, to be in Latin or Italian – which made this an excellent change of pace. It was thanks to this accessibility that I was able to follow the story (even though I knew it from Greek mythology) and enjoy it more fully.

Whether or not this counts as the first English opera, Venus and Adonis is an interesting piece that has a place in classical music history. So popular was it that Shakespeare wrote a substantial poem on the mythological story.

🎻♫♪ – Octet by Felix Mendelssohn

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 46/501Title: Octet
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Nationality: German

What were you doing at the age of 16? Me, I was keeping a diary and trying my hand at being an internet DJ (and that’s all I’ll be saying on that). Mendelssohn, well he composed this piece of classical music for his friend that is beautiful and complex. Some people truly have talent (and the drive towards perfection).

There are two reasons why I opted for Mendelssohn’s Octet as the next classical piece I was going to listen to. Firstly, it is the earliest piece of music by Mendelssohn on this list (now I understand why) and he is a composer that I feel I should have covered by now. Secondly, a string octet isn’t a piece that you see every day and it really made me wonder what that could sound like.

Octet is an interesting piece as it is written for two string quartets to play together. This was a time where string quartets were incredibly fashionable, so there was a real demand for music for them to play – so what Mendelssohn did by making this piece was undeniably clever as a way to not just keep up with the current trend but find a way to play with it. Again, this is someone who wrote this at 16.

When listening to the first of the four movements it was difficult to not see some kinship with the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer. There was something in the forceful and exuberant nature of the violins that really made me think of it. Apparently Faust by Goethe was a big influence on this, but since I have only ever seen a production of it on the Edinburgh Fringe, rather than properly study it, I was unable to make that connection.

Octet is a beautiful and jubilant piece of work. Over the course of this list I will be listening to many more works by Mendelssohn, which makes me wonder where he goes from here.

🎻♫♪ – Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 45/501Title: Porgy and Bess
Composer: George Gerswin
Nationality: American

Whilst I do understand their place on the 1001 Classical Works list, operas and ballets are so much a visual art form that listening to their soundtracks in isolation cannot give you the complete experience. Still though, imagine me sitting at work listening to 3 hours of opera as I am running statistics. Really lends a tinge of grand drama to writing a few lines of Python.

Going into this I already knew a number of the songs. Most of them I heard as Nina Simone covers; more recently I heard a cover version of ‘Summertime’ the Big Brother & the Holding Company album Cheap ThrillsI have become so used to hearing rocky and soulful covers that hearing them sung as part of an opera really gave them a whole new context. Although that context is somewhat troubling.

There is no denying what Porgy & Bess (and other works by George and Ira Gerswin that have also found their way onto this list) were significant in the progression from opera to what we now know as musical theatre. The way that they fused jazz with opera to make something completely different – well it was pretty much a unique venture and it really works.

However, there are some issues with this opera in terms of racial sensitivity. In some ways Porgy & Bess became very much a means to an end as there were few mainstream large-scale musical productions that feature a majority non-white cast, which is a great thing. On the other hand, these character negotiate a world of drugs and violence and speak with a slightly exaggerated cadence.

Stepping away form the politics of the piece and looking more at the music itself – this really is unlike any sort of opera that I have ever heard before. Would it have benefited on my actually watching it so that I was able to better understand the story? Maybe, but the beauty of it being an English language opera is that I could make enough of it out as I was listening to it at work.

One day I’ll watch the Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier film version to get the better context. But until then let’s see where the classical list takes me next.

🎻♫♪ – Concerto for Two Trumpets by Antonio Vivaldi

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 44/501Title: Concerto for Two Trumpets
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Nationality: Italian

I’m getting to the point in this classical list where, if I haven’t listened to a piece by each major composer, then it’s time to do so. Whilst I still have to cross off pieces by Bach, Schubert and Schumann – at least with this I have been able to put a line through something by Vivaldi.

I went for Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets not just because of my need to cover a piece by the composer, but also that this would the first piece I have listened to that focuses on the brass section of the orchestra. Little did I know that this piece was under ten minutes long and, by the time I had things set up to take notes, it was pretty much over.

The point of the piece is really to showcase the trumpet as an instrument. At the time trumpets weren’t built the same way as they are now, which made them more difficult to play and, therefore, made this a bit of a feat to be able to perform. It shows how trumpets can be used for fanfares, for exuberance and for more muted performances – and does so in a brief amount of time.

Sure I could have gone for The Four Seasons for the first Vivaldi piece, but this felt like a good way to start him off. I know I’ll probably need to do a longer piece soon (like an opera or a ballet) but for the moment I’m enjoying having a list where entries can take as long as an episode of We Bare Bears.

🎻♫♪ – Variations on a Nursery Song by Erno Dohnányi

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 43/501Title: Variations on a Nursery Song
Composer: Erno Dohnányi
Nationality: Hungarian

I have never known it for a piece of classical music to make me snicker… especially in the office, but that’s what Variations on a Nursery Song managed to make me do. I guess that Dohnányi’s subtitle of “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others is actually well placed.

You see, the thing that made me laugh happened within the first five minutes. The whole piece begins with an overblown Ride of the Valkyries style Wagner that feels super serious… and then we get the first of many variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. That’s pretty much what this piece does for the vast majority of it’s duration – many different variations on this nursery song.

What Dohnányi is doing in producing this whole piece is being very cheeky. Not only is he riffing on a well known song and giving it a grand classical stage, but he is also parodying many styles and contemporary composers. It’s a real shame that he has no other pieces on this list as I would really like to see whether this piece of classical satire was a blip or whether it was his bread and butter.

As all the variations are very short they pretty much merge into one larger piece, but if I had to choose a highlight it would be the fifth one, mainly because it is so bouncy and forms a great contrast with the seventh variation (where he turns Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star into a waltz). I’m not sure how many humorous pieces there are on this list, but I really hope to find some more having listened to this.

🎻♫♪ – Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 42/501Title: Missa Papae Marcelli
Composer: Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina
Nationality: Italian

Back to the earlier pieces again with religious pieces that engage in vocal polyphony. This isn’t going to be a long post as, honestly, I am running out of things to say about these pieces.

At this point I am still finding it difficult to really differentiate between these kinds of pieces… other than by a general feeling. With Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli I actually felt myself rather uplifted. These are clearly steps forward compared to some of the first ones and are probably some of the best that I have heard so far. However, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason why.

One happy accident of me changing my posting pattern to every day of the week is that it has spurred me on to start listening to these classical pieces at a greater pace. Eventually I will be seeing the end of these older vocal pieces from the Renaissance and move into the classical period of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Still a while away, but at least I’ve sped up.

🎻♫♪ – Poème de l’amour et de la mer by Ernest Chausson

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 41/501Title: Poème de l’amour et de la mer
Composer: Ernest Chausson
Nationality: French

In between discovering a new K-Pop group thanks to the show I am currently watching for the 1001 TV shows and listening to one of my favourite U.S. Girls tracks on repeat (it’s called ‘Sed Knife’ and it is fantastic), I managed to find time to try out the classical piece that is the subject of today’s post.

This classical music list has provided many a good piece of working music, so the hope was that Poéme de l’amour et de la mer might be another set of pieces to add to the growing library. I picked this piece pretty much at random, thinking that the name alone sounded intriguing and it would be good to listen to another entry on this list whose composer was completely unknown to me.

The piece itself is split into three parts: the first and final sections are sung poems (originally composed by a friend of the composer) that have been put to music. The middle, and far shorter, part acts an an instrumental interval to separate the two longer parts of this song cycle.

One of the likely reasons for this pieces inclusion on this list will be the premature death of composer Ernest Chausson – who died just as he was starting to get noticed. So, with this piece (and the other of his on the list), there is the whole ‘what if’ hanging over it – that this is a hint of what there could have been to come.

Honestly, these types of song cycles aren’t typically my cup of tea with the first song poem ‘The Flower of the Waters’ dragging on a bit. The second poem (‘The Death of Love’) is far more emotionally effecting and, despite being the longer of the pieces, finds enough nuance to play with that makes it pass at a far quicker pace.

I know that this piece has been arranged by different orchestras so that it can be sung by either gender, which makes me wonder what this would have been like with a soprano instead of the tenor version that I heard.

One of the interesting things about this list though; in essence every recording is like a cover of the original written version. For the older pieces, it is unlikely that I’ll ever hear exactly what the composer intended or something that’s identical to how it was originally rehearsed/performed.

🎻♫♪ – Cantus Arcticus by Einojuhani Rautavaara

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 40/501Title: Cantus Arcticus
Composer: Einojuhani Rautavaara
Nationality: Finnish

Thanks to the buzzing of a very persistent bumblebee – it was a bit of an early start today. Having finished the final episodes of Great Teacher Onizuka, I felt the need to lay down for a bit and try to relax to something a bit more classical and a little less high energy. So I pretty much pulled a classical piece at random and felt vindicated once the bird sounds started.

Honestly, I am not sure if I have ever heard anything quite like Cantus Arcticus. In summary, it is a short classical piece with three movements where prerecorded birdsong does a sweeping dance with the orchestra. Whilst the entire orchestra is used, this is predominantly a piece for the woodwind and strings sections; likely because of those instruments’ ability to create a flowing sound that provides a perfect environment for the birds.

The central figure of this classical piece is undeniably the birdsong, which was recorded at a bog in Northern Finland. The first movement (“The Bog”) is a free and chilled out piece where we take wing with the birds before being led into something more dark and mysterious (the second movement, called “Melancholy”). Then things get a bit more frantic in the final movement (“Swans Migrating”) as are lead to a subtly climactic finish that reminds me of some sections of The Rite of Spring.

This is not the first time I have heard a classical piece that uses sampling (Different Trains being one of them), but it still feels like an incredibly fresh idea to me. Where this is a first for me is that, when I close my eyes, I can imagine my own staged narrative. This is just such a vivid and beautifully done piece, which helps to demonstrate (at least to myself) that doing this list was a great idea.