Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine includes a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking is based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundjian (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the
Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)



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Ubiquitous American Music

As a supplement to my presentation at Rice University on classical music in the United States, I have embedded three pieces of music by American composers that are ubiquitous in concert halls around the world. For those not attending my presentation, I simply ask that you take time to enjoy the music. By any measure, these are three masterworks.

George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Maxim Eshkenazy conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio,
Andrew Armstrong (piano)

Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings (1938)

Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)

Seikyo Kim conducting Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen

As a bonus, here’s a piece not heard often in concert halls but discussed at length in my presentation. In brief, it’s a piece that celebrates the democratic ideal — the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the responsibility of the individual to contribute to the community. (Keep in mind that Carter composed music designed to challenge the intellect rather than evoke emotion.)

Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)
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Maurice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz


World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “
marching morons.”

In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

Battle of the Somme, 1916
World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

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Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed
La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of
La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)


Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz

The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1

4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6


8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).

As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

Steven Osborne, piano
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Aaron Copland and Billy the Kid


Aaron Copland finished composing his ballet suite about Billy the Kid in 1938. The music portrayed the Kid in a sympathetic light, and I suspect that had Copland composed it a dozen years earlier, he would have used a different musical style and presented an entirely different version of the Kid's story. 

I say this, in part, because Copland had reinvented himself as composer during the decade after he left Paris and returned to America in 1924. After he finished his studies at the Fontainebleau School of Music, he came home determined to create music that was “as recognizably American as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian.” He then embraced modernist dissonance and tone clusters, composing avant-garde music that seemed intentionally designed to provoke audiences. His music may have sounded “American,” but it was music that would never find a wide — or let’s say, “democratic” — audience.

Photo of Aaron Copland, 1970
Not until 1936, when he composed El Salon Mexico, did Copland begin to develop the “populist” style for which he is so well known, a style that often incorporates the simplicity of folk songs.

The change in Copland’s compositional style came partially from the social and political changes stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to expand his audience and create music that was accessible and inspirational. He wanted to give Americans a sense of ownership and pride in their nation’s heritage. He wanted to help people feel good about being American.

Copland's change in philosophy should lead to an obvious question: If he was so determined to celebrate what was good about America, why did he choose to compose music about an outlaw like Billy the Kid?

To answer that question we must begin by understanding that music and art are a product of the time in which they are produced. Copland's version of Billy the Kid, in many ways, was nothing more than a product of its time.

Photo of Billy the Kid
When Billy the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett in 1881 (over fifty years before Copland's ballet), he was portrayed by the media as a black-hearted villain and cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented anarchy and lawlessness and throughout the late 1800s became a symbol for everything wrong with the American West. After he was killed, one newspaper even referred to him as the “devil’s meat." By the early 1900s, the Kid began to disappear from American media and history books, having become a character from the past who Americans wanted to ignore and forget. 

Then, in 1926, a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns published
The Saga of Billy the Kid. Burns had visited New Mexico and heard firsthand accounts of the Kid that changed his view of the boy outlaw. Burns interviewed people who had known the Kid and used those interviews to write a book that was eventually listed as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. In short, Burns had written a bestseller that resurrected and redefined the Kid in popular culture.

In
The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed the Kid as a young boy fighting against a powerful and corrupt political machine. According to Burns, the Kid was a noble and charming champion of the oppressed. The Kid may have been a violent young man, but his actions were justified, and he personified a type of individualism that was disappearing in America. All told, Burns created a hero for an America that felt betrayed by the financial corruption of the 1920s and economic depression of the 1930s.

During the 1930s, the Kid was at the height of his popularity as a hero in popular culture. In 1930, MGM made a movie titled
Billy the Kid that showed the young outlaw fighting for the powerless and downtrodden, a heroic character at war with villainous bankers and big landowners. Preview audiences for the film reacted so negatively to the Kid’s death at the end of the film that MGM was forced to create a new ending, showing Pat Garrett shooting at the Kid and intentionally missing. The Kid then fled on horseback across the border into Mexico.

As for Aaron Copland’s
Billy the Kid, the music did nothing more than conform to the popular image of Billy the Kid that was widespread during the 1930s. Had Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1925 it might have been a dissonant portrayal of a villainous desperado. The version composed in 1938, however, provided a folksy depiction of a young boy who was muy simpático.

Today, Copland’s
Billy the Kid can be heard as a timeless piece of music, a composition that represents much more than a milestone in Copland’s evolving compositional style. It is also much more than an artifact of the 1930s. Despite the changes that are sure to come in how music is composed or how Billy the Kid is portrayed in popular culture, Copland’s Billy the Kid will remain an emotional and romantic portrait of an American icon.


Kevin Noe conducting the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra

0:04 Part 1
— The story begins with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

3:38 Part 2 — The story shifts to Silver City, NM, a small frontier town where the young wide-eyed and innocent Billy lives with his mother. Toward the end of this section Billy’s mother is killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight (9:44). Billy then kills the man responsible for his mother’s death and goes on the run, living the life of an outlaw.

10:37 Part 3 — The scene shifts to several years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert, playing cards with his companions at night. The solo trumpet (12:41) portrays the Kid as a lonely character.

14:09 Part 4 — Billy finds himself in a gunfight with a posse charged with arresting him. Billy is captured and taken to jail.

16:11 Part 5 — People celebrate the capture of Billy the Kid. During the celebration, the Kid kills two guards (18:30) and escapes from jail.

18:45 Part 6 — Billy, alone on the prairie, is hunted by Pat Garrett and shot dead.

20:28 Part 7 — The opening theme returns with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

Support this blog by using the links below to purchase books and recordings from Amazon. The book Catherine's Son is a novel written by the author of this blog and tells the story of Billy the Kid during the years he lived in Silver City, NM.




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The American Sound in Classical Music


When listening to Chopin’s
Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his
Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that has been forced to consider the diversity of American culture.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)


After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Ives, Country Band March (1903)


Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts" (1944)


The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is
Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

Photo of Elliot Carter
Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.

What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time.

That, in a nutshell, is how to think about Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his
Variations for Orchestra:

I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)


Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)


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Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, Third Movement Finale (1915)

Although Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony seemingly has three movements, the first movement contains an allegro and a scherzo, providing the feeling of four movements for the symphony. In its entirety, the symphony can be heard as a “struggle” leading to the “victory” heard in the beautiful “Swan Theme” at 1:24 in the video below. (The theme was said to be inspired by the swan calls Sibelius heard after watching sixteen swans taking flight at once.) Note the unusual ending for the symphony.


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
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Elgar, Enigma Variation, No. 9, "Nimrod" (1899)

“Nimrod,” an Old Testament hunter, was Edward Elgar's nickname for his publisher and closest friend, Augustus Jaeger. Elgar appreciated Jaeger for always encouraging him as an artist and wrote the following piece to represent the summer evening that he spent listening to Jaeger talk about Beethoven’s adagios. The Nimrod Variation is the most famous of the fourteen “Enigma Variations" and has become a standard piece of music for solemn ceremonies and other dignified occasions.


Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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Hall of Fame Film Scores

The UK’s Classic FM (my favorite classical music station) is creating a Hall of Fame for great film scores and recently polled their listeners for three HOF candidates. I participated in the poll and chose three soundtracks I thought were integral to the character of their films. In other words, I can’t imagine these films without their soundtracks, and when I think of these films one of the first things that comes to mind is the music. Here’s my HOF candidates (listed in order):

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 (music by Elmer Bernstein)


On the Waterfront, 1954 (music by Leonard Bernstein)


High Noon, 1952 (music by Dimitri Tiomkin)

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Moments of Elevation in Music

“The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.” – Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century CE)

Longinius intended to describe how good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but its message might also apply to music. Great music does not “persuade” us, it transports us, providing us with moments of elevation.

Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.”  All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.

For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music. Something that touches me emotionally while I’m reading a book or watching a movie might catch me off guard, but moments of elevation in music almost never catch me off guard. I expect them.

I also don’t know how to describe why those moments happen in music.

In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in
Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.



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I can also describe the reasons I experience moments of elevation during sporting events. I once watched an NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers that went into overtime. The Charger tight end Kellen Winslow (#80) played a heroic game, catching 13 passes, even though he was treated during the game for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a cut on his lower lip that received three stitches. Teammates had to help him off the field after the game. Such grit and resolve is inspirational.

But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?

I have no idea.

All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.

Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.

No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.

The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.

I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music. 

What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's
Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.

Turn up the volume and enjoy!


Chung Myung-Whun conducting the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
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Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, Fourth Movement (1917)

Although this symphony was composed in 1917, it sounds like a throwback to the type of symphony that Joseph Haydn wrote in the late 1700s — many even called it Prokofiev's "Classic" Symphony. I love the tempo Valery Gergiev establishes on this recording. He has the music sounding playful and liberated. (To read more about this symphony, go to my blog entry titled “Decorating Time with Prokofiev’s First Symphony.")


Valery Gergiev conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker
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Stravinsky Causes a Riot

History books are traditionally divided into chapters that attempt to compartmentalize the ebb and flow of historical change. In most cases, however, historical change is not orderly and well-defined. History is not always marked by clear beginnings and endings. Even so, now and then, a single event turns everything upside down and transforms a society — the attack on the Bastille in 1789, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the stock market crash in 1929. Those events clearly marked new “chapters” in human history.

Music history — like political and economic history — also has its earth-shattering moments, the moments when everything changes. Monteverdi’s
L’Orfeo  (1607) changed European music forever, as did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865). All three of those works shook the foundations of music and made it difficult for composers to continue using the traditional "rules" of composition that had preceded them. Another such moment in music history came on May 29, 1913, when The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Photo of Champs Elysees Theater
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

The first performance of The Rite of Spring caused such an uproar that most accounts of the audience’s reaction refered to it as a “riot.” Even though the ballet’s unusual choreography may have had as much to do with causing a commotion as the music, we cannot avoid describing The Rite of Spring as one of the most significant and influential pieces of music ever composed.

The Rite of Spring was the third ballet by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and entrepreneur, created the Ballet Russes in 1909 when he brought Russian ballet dancers to Paris. Employing the finest dancers in the world, Diaghilev gained much fame combining music, scenery, costumes, acting, and drama into what Richard Wagner had once described as “Artwork of the Future.”

During the first season of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev produced performances of classic ballets with music by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the second season, however, Diaghilev scheduled performances with new music. The first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with new music was
The Firebird by Stravinsky. At the time, Stravinsky was an unknown Russian composer, a former pupil of the great Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Firebird, which premiered in June 1910, became a hit, leading Diaghilev to commission another ballet from Stravinsky. That ballet, titled Petrushka, made Stravinsky an international star and Diaghilev asked Stravinsky for a third ballet — The Rite of Spring. At its premiere the audience was full of aristocrats and celebrities, and Paris was primed for a major social event. Little did the audience know they were about to make history by witnessing an event that would scandalize Paris and revolutionize the language of music.

PIcasso's Drawing of Stravinsky
Pablo Picasso's sketch of Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring paints a picture of a primitive and pagan world, a version of primeval human beings paying tribute to nature with rituals related to spring. During the ballet, a young virgin is selected for sacrifice and then dances herself to death.

Parisian painters had already been influenced by primitive art and had created a new artistic style known as Fauvism. “Fauvists” (or “Brutes”) painted with wild brush strikes and jarring colors.
The Rite of Spring might be described in the same terms. The combination of modernist music and dancing went far beyond what some members of the audience at the premier performance were willing to accept.

Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, attended the premier and later describe the chaos in his book
Music After the War.

“A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium. I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”

In addition to Van Vecthen’s description, other well-known stories from that evening illustrate the controversial nature of the ballet.

  • A woman who was enjoying the performance stood up and spat in the face of a man who didn't like the music.
  • Another woman who was also enjoying the performance was seated in a theater box . When a boobird in the box next to her got on her nerves she reached into his box and slapped his face. Her escort then challenged the boobird to a duel.
  • The Princesse de Pourtalès walked out of the theater exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone dared to make a fool of me!”
  • The ambassador from Austria sneered and laughed out loud.
  • Music critic André Capu screamed that the music was a fraud.
  • Composer and music critic Alexis Roland-Manuel loudly defended the music, causing a protestor to tear the collar from his shirt.
  • Police came to the theater in large numbers and arrested over 40 people.
The well-known people at the performance included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel shouted the word “genius” during the performance. Debussy pleaded with those around him to be silent and listen to the music. Meanwhile Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, tried to jump into the audience to fight the protestors. Stravinsky held Nijinsky backstage to keep him from getting into a fistfight. The crowd's noise also prompted Nijinsky to stand on a chair shouting directions to his dancers as Stravinsky held his coattails.

Byron Hollinshead has edited a pair of books titled
I Wish I'd Been There in which distinguished historians answer the question, “What scene or incident in history would you most liked to have witnessed? Although I can think of several historical events I would like to have witnessed, the premier performance of The Rite of Spring would be near the top of my list.

If I had been at that performance, I would have wanted to attend as neutral observer, someone who was not taking sides. I would have wanted to watch that performance knowing what we know over 100 years later, fully cognizant of how much Stravinsky’s music was changing everything that came after. I wish I'd been there to see what it looks like when the world is shaken to its core and everything begins moving in a different direction.

*****

Music Outline for The Rite of Spring (LeSacre du Pintemps)

The two animated scores embedded below are among the best I have seen. The animations come from Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal at
Music Animation Machine. I find their work on The Rite of Spring riveting and thrilling. NPR called them "mind blowing."


Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.

Part One: Adoration of the Earth


 
0:06 | 1. Introduction

 
3:18 | 2. Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescents): The celebration of spring begins in the hills. Pipers play music and young men tell fortunes.

 
6:26 | 3. Game of the Abduction: An old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and begins to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file and begin the spring dance.

 
7:48 | 4. Spring Rounds: The young girls dance the “Spring Rounds.”

11:22 | 5. Games of the Rival Tribes: The people divide into two groups opposing each other and begin the “Games of the Rival Tribes.”

13:08 | 6. Entrance of the Wise Man: The holy procession enters with the wise elders led by the Wise Man.

13:48 | 7. The Wise Man: The Wise Man interrupts the spring games and the people tremble as the he blesses the earth.

14:09 | 8. Dance to the Earth: The people dance passionately and become one with the earth.


Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.

Part Two: The Sacrifice


 
0:15 | 9. Introduction

 
4:54 | 10. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents: At night, the adolescent girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.

 
8:10 | 11. Glorification of the Chosen One: One of the girls — a virgin — is selected as the Chosen One after being twice caught in a perpetual circle. The adolescent girls honor her with a marital dance.

 
9:36 | 12. Evocation of the Ancestors: The adolescent girls invoke their ancestors in a brief dance.

10:30 | 13. Ritual of the Ancestors: The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.

14:06 | 14. Ritual Dance of the Chosen One: The Chosen One performs a sacrificial dance and dances herself to death in the presence of the old wise men.




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Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1824)

Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)

According to
CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December  2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume. 

"If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie

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Borodin, Polovtsian Dance No. 17 (1897)

Music was only a hobby for Alexander Borodin, a Russian physician and chemist who worked tirelessly for women’s rights. In addition to the great music he composed, his legacy includes a School of Medicine for Women, which he established in St. Petersburg in 1872. What a guy! Make sure you stay with this video beyond the beautiful opening themes and don’t miss all the fun that begins at 4:06.


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Sommernachtskonzert
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Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time, the traditional third movement minuet became a scherzo, and, unlike previous symphonies, this symphony follows a dramatic narrative through all four movements. I have placed this piece in the “Classical” category but could easily have tagged it as “Romantic.”


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra
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Decorating Time with Prokofiev's First Symphony

"Ah, music! A magic far beyond all we do here!"

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.

None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.

A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.

As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski


0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)

1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.

1:57 – Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.

3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)

3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.

4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)

Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound.

It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.

© 2015 James L. Smith

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Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy (1908)

Kirill Petrenko, a 43-year-old Russian-Austrian conductor, has recently been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. Petrenko will replace Sir Simon Rattle, who has served as principal conductor since 2002. Rattle will leave the Berlin Philharmonic in August 2018.


Kirill Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012
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Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo (1890)

Here’s a wonderful performance of one of classical music’s most beautiful pieces of music. Mascagni inserted this interlude into his opera Cavallaria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) to denote the passage of time. If it sounds familiar, you may have heard it in the film Raging Bull. (The music begins at 0:40 after much encouragement from the audience for an encore.)


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Gothenburg Symphony
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Strauss, Don Quixote, Finale (1898)

Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.


Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)
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Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048 (1721)

“I love the Brandenburg Concertos and think they are so rhythmic, and so full of life, and so related in a way to jazz.” – Dave Brubeck, 2007

1st and 2nd Movements (2nd Movement begins at 5:53 – a short movement)


3rd Movement

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
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