CHAPTER 6: Programmatic Music

 

LISTENING LIST 6.1

Listening Guide 6.1.1

Historical Background

Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: Russian

Life and work:  Born into a military family, Rimsky-Korsakov served as an officer in the Russian navy and as an inspector for navy bands, in addition to teaching music and composing.  He was among a group of composers concerned with developing a recognizably Russian style of instrumental music.  Though much of his output is rarely played, a few key pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov remain staples of the repertory.

Scheherazade, I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (1888)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 10 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: After an introduction, the music alternates between two sections of music before reaching a coda.  (Introduction, 0:00; A, 1:26; B, 3:53; A1, 5:42; B1, 7:03, Coda, 9:03.)

Comment: Russian music of this era is characterized by the frequent repetition of melodies and their clear fragmentation.  In the A section, listen for how, after playing the melody twice, Rimsky-Korsakov begins shortening it and speeding it up in an effort to build excitement.

Listening Guide 6.1.2

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Symphony No. 6, op. 68 “Pastorale”

I. Allegro ma non troppo (1808)

“Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country”

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 12 minutes and 15 seconds

Mode: major

Form: sonata-allegro (Exposition, 0:00; Exposition repeat, 2:36; Development, 5:09; Recapitulation, 7:41; Coda, 10:17).

Comment: Listen for the interplay of the opening melody with a secondary one, which you’ll hear during the exposition and its repeat at 1:17 and 3:50 respectively and during the recapitulation at 8:53.  Listen also for the relaxed pace of the music: a good example takes place in the middle of the development, where the music stays on the same chord (an E major triad) for a full thirty seconds—an astonishing amount of time for one chord to last in most any kind of music.  The passage is from 6:24-6:54.

Listening Guide 6.1.3

Historical Background

Composer: Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: French

Life and work: Born into a non-musical family, Debussy was a freelance composer and music critic who lived in Paris.  Though he himself disliked the distinction, he is often referred to as an “impressionist” composer, much as Claude Monet was an impressionist painter.  Regarded in his lifetime as an important composer, his work has been highly esteemed since his death.

Three Nocturnes, I. Nuages (“Clouds”) (1899)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 7 minutes and 55 seconds

Mode: minor, freely tonal

Form: ternary (Introduction, 0:19; A, 1:45; B, 4:50; A/Coda, 6:00).

Comment: Listen to how differently Debussy uses the orchestra compared to works we’ve heard so far.  Here, the woodwinds play a hugely prominent role.  And, in the B section, the harp takes the melodic line.  (Usually harps accompany a melody, as in Scheherazade’s theme.)

Listening Guide 6.1.4

 Historical Background

Composer: Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: American

Life and work: Though born into a musical family, Ives did not pursue music as a career.  Because of his success in the insurance business, however, he was able to support many younger composers whose music he admired, like Henry Cowell, who was a teacher of George Gershwin.  Ives’s music isn’t popular per se, but he is arguably the “founding father” of American classical music.

The Unanswered Question (1908)

Instrumentation: trumpet, flutes, strings

Duration: 6 minutes and 10 seconds

Mode: tonal and atonal

Form: The trumpet asks the question seven times.  Until the seventh time, the flutes’ response gets louder.

Comment: Ives was fond of piling up layers of wildly contrasting music.  Here, against a tonal—major—background in the strings, we hear the atonal music of the flutes and the trumpet.  In the program, the trumpet and the flutes are humans, whereas the strings are otherworldly beings who exist for all time.

LISTENING LIST 6.2

Listening Guide 6.2.1

Historical Background

Composer: Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Era of music history: Twentieth-century (pre-war and post-war)

Nationality: Russian

Life and work: Though from a musical family, Stravinsky’s father did not want him to pursue music.  Nonetheless, before he was thirty, Stravinsky was in demand as a composer, a demand he sustained until he died.  Perhaps the most celebrated composer of the twentieth century, he was also active as a conductor of his music

The Rite of Spring

Part One: “The Adoration of the Earth” (1913)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 16 minutes and 35 seconds

Mode: freely tonal

Form: The Rite of Spring is a ballet, though the music is usually performed without the dance.  In the ballet’s first part, there are eight scenes.  The following chart gives the title of each scene, a description of what happens, and the timing.

The ballet depicts “scenes from pagan Rus,” specifically a prehistoric ritual sacrifice to the gods to insure a successful harvest.

--Synopsis taken from Yarustovsky and Wikipedia.

Listening Guide 6.2.2

Historical Background

Composer: Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Era of music history: Romantic / Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Italian

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Respighi was first a professional violinist and violist.  He later taught composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome.  He was an internationally famous composer during his lifetime, though his reputation today rests on only a handful of widely performed works, of which Pines of Rome is one.

The Fountains of Rome (1917)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 16 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode: freely tonal

Form: In four movements, each corresponding to a fountain in Rome.  Respighi begins his program with the following paragraph.

“In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains contemplated in the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.”

The following chart gives the titles, timings, and Respighi’s subsequent descriptions of each of the movements.

Translation taken from the Ricordi miniature score.

Listening Guide 6.2.3

Historical Background

Composer: Richard Wagner

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: German

Life and work:  One of music’s great revolutionaries, Wagner made his name first as a conductor.  But his radical politics got him into trouble.  After years of struggle, he suddenly received the lavish patronage of Ludwig II of Bavaria in the mid-1860s.  From then up until his death, Wagner enjoyed an extraordinary career composing some of the repertory’s most impressive operas and acquiring a cult-like following.

Siegfried Idyll (1869)

Instrumentation: small orchestra

Duration: 23 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode: major

Form: non-standard.  Wagner’s music is famously stream-of-conscious (or, as his critics would have it, “formless”).  Nonetheless, here there’s clearly a sonata-allegro idea beneath the surface, though, naturally, Wagner does not adhere to the form strictly.  (Introduction, 0:00; Exposition, 2:03; Development, 8:38; Recapitulation, 14:45; Coda, 21:42.)  As always, listen for the multiple themes.  The first theme can be heard at many points in the work, but firstly at the beginning of the exposition and recapitulation.  The second theme can be heard in the exposition at 6:22 and recalled briefly in the recapitulation at 20:21. 

Comment:  Intended to be a private work, the original title was “Triebschen Idyll with Fidi’s Birdsong and the Orange Sunrise, as Symphony Birthday Greeting.  Presented to his Cosima by her Richard.”  “Triebschen” was the small town in Switzerland where Wagner was living at the time.  “Fidi” was a nickname for their son, Siegfried.  “Cosima” was Wagner’s wife, and Franz Liszt’s daughter.  One can hear Fidi’s birdsong late in the development at 13:45.

Listening Guide 6.2.4

Historical Background

Composer: Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: Hungarian / German

Life and work: Born to a musical family, Liszt’s amazing talent and dashing good looks made him a superstar pianist starting in his 20s.  He remained a major presence in European music through the 1870s.  Though as a composer his reputation is not as strong as some of his contemporaries, many of his pieces are very highly regarded, and he is widely considered one of the nineteenth century’s most innovative composers.

Les Preludes (1854)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 16 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode: major

Form: non-standard.  Les Preludes is an example of something Liszt himself first developed called a “symphonic poem.”  Such a piece is always programmatic and endeavors to superimpose in one continuous piece the tempo changes of different movements (fast-slow-fast) with sections within sonata form.  The chart below tries to show this novel approach to form.

Comment: Like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Les Preludes tries to evoke a generalized story of life.  Based on Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem of the same name, the program consists of a hypothetical (the “question”) progress of an individual’s life.  A person falls passionately in love (“Love”).  Yet this is love is disappointed (“Storm”).  Soon, the individual develops a certain philosophical stance toward this disappointment and takes refuge in the tranquil delights of nature (“Calm”).  But the individual cannot ignore the call of his fellow-man and inevitably returns to society to “recover the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his energy” (“Battle”).

 --program quote taken from Taruskin

LISTENING LIST 6.3

Listening Guide 6.3.1

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1829)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

String Quartet op. 18 no. 1

II. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato (1800)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 8 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-allegro (Exposition, 0:00; Development, 3:36; Recapitulation, 4:48; Coda, 7:16).

Comment: Though no indication in the score specifies as much, we know from biographical sources that this movement was inspired by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet.  According to some Beethoven scholars, the first theme (0:15) may represent Romeo’s sorrow; the second theme (2:04), in major, Juliet’s beauty.  (The second theme reappears in the recapitulation at 5:48.)  The sighs toward the end (8:09 and 8:15) may be meant to portray Romeo’s final sighs right after he’s poisoned himself.

Listening Guide 6.3.2

Historical Background

Composer: Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Era of music history: 20th-century (pre-war)

Nationality: Czech

Life and work: One of music history’s great late bloomers, fame came to Janáček only at age fifty, when his opera Jenůfa premiered successfully.  Concerned with creating a uniquely Czech music that drew from the rhythms of the language and folk music of the region, he went on to compose operas and instrumental music in the last two decades of his life, becoming the most important Czech composer since Dvořák.

String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”

I.  Andante--Con moto—Allegro (1928)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 6 minutes and 15 seconds

Mode: freely tonal

Form: non-standard.  With its jarring tempo and texture changes, “Intimate Letters” feels like a private discussion on which we’re eavesdropping: even though we can hear all the words, we do not understand much of their significance; the conversation is not conforming to societal (or, structural) norms.  Nonetheless, we can perceive the interplay of four melodies.  The first gets introduced by the violins at the very opening; the second by the viola at 0:16, the third at 1:39, the fourth at 3:57.  The opening theme returns for a coda at the end (5:32).

Comment:  Janáček’s piece is meant to evoke the tenor of the voluminous correspondence he shared with a much younger woman who was married to another man.  Despite the mutual confessions of love and affection, the relationship was never consummated and remained out of sight.  The present quartet was premiered just after Janáček’s death.  The viola is meant to signify the voice of the young woman.  The instrument has many important solos, at 0:16, 2:24, and 4:56 among them.

Listening Guide 6.3.3

Historical Background

Composer: Ned Rorem (b. 1923)

Era of music history: Twentieth-century (post-war)

Nationality: American

Life and work: Most beloved for his songs, Ned Rorem has also written a lot of instrumental music.  Though he has had a very prestigious career as a composer and teacher, he is also one of America’s most famous diarists, having published extensively about his own long and eventful life.

String Quartet No. 4, VIII. “Self-Portrait” (1994)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 5 minutes and 10 seconds

Mode: freely tonal and atonal

Form: ternary (A, 0:00; B, 2:53; A1, 3:48)

Comment: This is the “central piece” of Rorem’s ten-movement String Quartet No. 4.  Each movement takes inspiration from a painting by Pablo Picasso.  In his composer’s note before the score, Rorem writes that this “movement means unequivocally to portray the schizoid temper of any artist—or, indeed, any human—whose hot urge for self-expression is met by the cold self-protection of his alter ego.”  The music’s juxtaposition of violent melodic lines with long, held notes as if in the distance should remind you of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, surely a work in Rorem’s mind while working on this movement.

Listening Guide 6.3.4

Historical Background

Composer: Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: French

Life and work: Born to a non-musical—though artistic—family, Messiaen taught harmony for decades at the Paris Conservatory and for over sixty years was the organist at La Trinité, a church in Paris.  During his lifetime and ever since, his music has been widely performed and celebrated.

Quartet for the End of Time

VIII. “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus” (1941)

Instrumentation: violin and piano

Duration: 7 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode: major

Form: A, 0:00; A1, 3:47.  The two sections begin identically, but are continued differently.  In A1, 5:51 corresponds to 2:08 of the first A section.  Notice how the violin now goes slightly lower than in the earlier section only to make a more dramatic ascent to the highest long notes in the entire composition.

Comment: One of the towering classics of the twentieth century, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was written while the composer was a prisoner in a labor camp during World War II.  The piece attempts nothing less than to portray in music the end of the world, as revealed in the Bible.  (Messiaen was a devout Catholic his entire life.)  In this last movement, Messiaen portrays the ascent of man toward God after the apocalypse; the violin sings the praises of the human aspect of Jesus.