“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I enjoy listening to most genres of music, whether it’s jazz, rock, pop (albeit not Justin Beiber, EVER), rap, show tunes, etc. As a trombonist and classically trained singer, one of my favorite genres has to be classical. There is no exact definition of “classical music”, but many musicians and academics classify it as the Western historical period of music from 1600 – the 20th century. This can be divided further into four smaller periods: the Baroque Era (1600-1750), the Classical Era (1750-roughly the early 19th century), the Romantic Era (let’s say 1820-the end of World War I), and the 20th century/Modern Era.
The general, non-musician public today knows classical music mostly from its use in pop culture. The Die Hard franchise makes extensive use of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Moviegoers know Edward Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Churchgoers and moviegoers alike know the Hallelujah Chorus from George Handel’s Messiah. I can’t leave out Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which has been in a ridiculous number of movie scenes and trailers (protip: it has nothing to do with America winning the War of 1812, and everything to do with Russia repealing Napoleon’s 1812 invasion. That hasn’t stopped us from playing it at 4th of July concerts as a piece of patriotic music. ‘MUHRICA!)
The point I’m getting at is that whether your iTunes account is filled with classical music, or everything besides it, we’ve all heard the genre before, and quite a lot of it. I’ve decided to use this post to talk about a few classical pieces that I really enjoy, but are scarce to find in pop culture. The title of this post is hyperbolic, so don’t be offended if I didn’t include your favorite piece.
1. “Méditation” from Thaïs, by Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
I discovered the “Méditation” on an album of 150 “all time greatest most important” classical music pieces. It was written by the French opera composer Jules Massenet as an entr’acte between the first two scenes of Act II of his 1894 opera, Thaïs. At this point in the opera, the Egyptian courtesan Thaïs, a hedonistic worshiper of Venus, has been asked by the Christian monk Athanaël if she will abandon her life of materialism and luxury to follow him and find salvation in God. The Méditation serves as a period of reflection for Thaïs on her life so far, and when it’s finished, she agrees to join Athanaël and follow him into the desert.
The Méditation is scored for a solo violinist accompanied by an orchestra of flutes, oboes, english horn, clarinets, bassoons, french horns, harps, a choir, and strings. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I got a bit teary eyed the first time I heard it; the piece is beautiful, and has become one of Massenet’s most well known contributions to music. Many of the world’s top violinists and orchestras perform it as an encore at concerts. Here’s Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman playing it with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in 2012:
2. “Uranus, The Magician” from The Planets, by Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Gustav Holst is one of the UK’s most famous composers, and his numerous contributions to the canon of Western music have ensured that countless generations of musicians will know his name and legacy. Without a doubt, though, Holst’s magnum opus is his orchestral suite The Planets. Composed between 1914-1916, the suite is comprised of seven movements, each named after one of the planets in the solar system. In concert order: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (Pluto hadn’t been discovered yet, and it turns out it’s not a planet anyway!) The two most popular movements are Mars – it definitely influenced John Williams’ “Imperial March” in The Empire Strikes Back – and Jupiter, a section of which provides the tune for the British patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. However, I think “Uranus” is underrated and doesn’t get enough attention (try to hold back your giggles)
It’s dramatic, haunting, and vulgar, all at the same time. There’s a little bit of everything in this movement to satisfy the ear. The four note brass motif that punctuates the movement is powerful and jarring. The moving low woodwinds line that creeps along, growing in volume before being joined by the strings, is straight out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (the whole movement reminds me of that symphonic poem, and I could definitely picture Uranus as the soundtrack for that section of Fantasia.) And when the horns come in with their melody…wow, that’s all I can say. It’s quite a difficult piece, one that only the most experienced of orchestras can bring justice to. It’s my favorite movement from The Planets, and I could listen to it many times without getting bored. Here’s a recent recording from the London Symphony Orchestra – listen to it at full volume for the best experience.
3. Symphony No. 5, Allegro non troppo, by Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975)
Over the course of history, there are times where music becomes more than music. For example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was performed at the Brandenburg Gate under the baton of Leonard Bernstein on Christmas, 1989, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. With an orchestra and choir made up of different nationalities, and the famous fourth movement substituting “Ode to Joy” with “Ode to Freedom”, the Symphony took on political significance, associating Beethoven’s music with the approaching end of the USSR and the chance for free, democratic governments to take its place.
Speaking of the USSR and music, we have Dmitri Shostakovitch, one of the Soviet Union’s most prolific composers. You’ve probably heard his “Second Waltz” from the Suite for Variety Orchestra in commercials or the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. Throughout his life, he was loved by the Soviet public, but his relationship with the Soviet government is a bit complicated. Basically, he did not want to compose music in the “socialist realism” style that the USSR demanded of all composers. His opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District and the ballet The Limpid Stream were condemned in the Soviet-backed press as “nonsensical” and unpatriotic. His peers suggested that his next composition fall in line with government regulations, or he could face expulsion to the gulag (mind you, this was 1937 at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge.)
Shostakovitch was wrought with distress. Should he yield to Communist Party pressure to potentially save his life, or should he stick true to his artistic values and compose what he felt was right? He set to work writing his 5th Symphony, and when it premiered in November of 1937, it received wide praise from both the public and the Soviet government. How was Shostakovitch able to do this? Honestly, I don’t know because I’m not Shostakovitch. What I can tell you is that there is some quality to the 5th Symphony that allows the listener to interpret it in a multitude of ways. To the Soviet arts officials, the symphony was Shostakovitch’s embrace of socialist realism, finally producing a piece of music that could bring glory to the USSR. To the public who heard the symphony’s performance, perhaps they heard a covert message of defiance against an authoritarian regime; a composer yearning to break free of the shackles that chained him from individuality and freedom of expression. The meaning and interpretation of the 5th Symphony is as complex as Shostakovitch’s life. In his later years, he joined the Communist Party and became the General Secretary of the Composers Union, but no one knows for sure whether this decision came from political pressure, complacency, cowardice, or something else.
Besides being such a fantastic work of art, I enjoy the 5th Symphony because of its fascinating history and the political connotations surrounding it. If music is the “universal language of mankind,” then what was Shostakovitch trying to tell us with this piece? I’ve included a video of Leonard Bernstein (what a coincidence!) conducting the 4th and final movement of the symphony from 1979 with the New York Philharmonic. The hymn like ending makes me wonder: is it a socialist proclamation of the glory of the working commoner, a declaration of defiance against the government, a musical representation of the triumph of the human spirit, or something else?