Another 10 Interesting Stories Behind Classical Compositions
Relating back to the list “10 Interesting Stories Behind Classical Compositions“, it is sad that so many people have found it to be boring. This is another 10 great pieces with 10 great stories, hoping to spread the divine gift that is classical music. In no particular order:
Most people know the Barber of Seville through Gioachino Rossini’s opera. However, most non-music students would not know that in Rossini’s lifetime, the composer Giovanni Paisiello had written another Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was a big hit in the musical community, and was hailed as Paisiello’s magnum opus. In 1816, when Rossini’s Barber was premiered, the supporters of the old Barber attended the premiere, booing loudly so that none of Rossini’s music could be heard, even sneaking a cat onto the stage. However, time has filtered out Paisiello’s Barber and Rossini emerged triumphant.
Maestro Rossini died in 1868. To honor his contributions to the Italian opera scene, the also great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi grouped together the leading Italian composers to write a movement each of a Requiem Mass, to be published as the Messa per Rossini. However, just 9 days before the premiere, the project fell through. The disappointed Verdi, who had written the Libera Me movement, ended his friendship with the conductor. 4 years later, when the writer Alessandro Manzoni died, Verdi utilized the Libera Me and wrote the remaining movements of the Requiem Mass, forming his fiery and fearsome Messa da Requiem.
In Mahler’s time, there was a persistent fear amongst composers of the Curse of the Ninth. Beethoven died with only 9 symphonies completed, and several other composers such as Bruckner and Dvorak has also only have 9 symphonies. In Schoenberg’s words, “It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready.” Mahler was especially terrified of writing his own 9th. Therefore, after his 8th, he combined two of his most proficient forms, the symphony and the art song, and created a “Symphonic Song-cycle”. This is the Das Lied von der Erde, the song of the Earth. With this, Mahler proceeded to writing his 9th, believing to have broken the curse. Unfortunately, he died with his 10th incomplete.
The third session of the Council of Trent was held in 1562-1563. This council was called by the Vatican to reform itself as a counter to Martin Luther’s Reformation. Amongst the many reforms, polyphony was scheduled to be abolished in churches, reverting back to the monophonic Gregorian Chant. In Canon 8, it stated that “the entire manner of singing in musical modes should be calculated not to afford vain delight to the ear”. This is a reaction towards the extremely complicated polyphonic church music that exists in the time. Although it is more aesthetically pleasing, the words sung could no longer be distinguished, and the church felt that it brought religion out of the mass. Palestrina, according to legend, then wrote the Missa Papae Marcelli to demonstrate how polyphony can also be clear. This astounding usage of polyphony convinced the Council to accept polyphony in churches.
Now that we can play all the keys on a piano, we take it for granted. Back in the Renaissance-Baroque era, all keyboards were tuned to equal temperament. That is that every note has a specific frequency. In so doing, an A on C major would be different from an A on D major. This meant that only certain keys could be played on one keyboard. Well-tempered tuning was introduced to solve this problem. A compromise was made so that, even though slightly out of tune, all keys could be played on a keyboard. This tuning survived to this very day. However, in Bach’s time, composers were still comfortable only in the more conservative keys. To this, Bach wrote the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, writing a prelude and fugue for every key, from C major to G-sharp minor. With this 48 preludes and fugues in the 24 possible keys, Bach demonstrated the merits of the more obscure keys.
Franz Joseph Haydn was a court composer in the service of Count Esterházy. One particular summer, the Count was staying in his summer palace for much longer than planned. The musicians that were part of the entourage were forced to leave their libido untamed and their wives at home, and were extremely frustrated with the Count’s prolonged stay. Haydn, empathizing with the musicians, decided to help them convince the Count to go back. In the last movement of this symphony, the musicians leave one by one, packing their scores and moving offstage. This proceeds for quite some time, until at last only two violins end the symphony. The Count, taking the hint, ordered to return soon after.
Richard Strauss lived through a turbulent time. In the midst of all the revolutionized music, with Serialism in Austria and Impressionism in France, Strauss maintained a traditional Romantic style of music. This, unfortunately, brought much criticism. Living in Nazi Germany, even writing the fanfare for the Berlin Olympic Games, he was criticized even more by people both supporting and denouncing the Nazi Party. At the end of his life, he came across the poem Im Abendrot, apparently having a great effect on him. He soon composed a Lied (art song) based on this poem. All through the Lied, there are much allusions to his own life. It is scored for a soprano voice, and Strauss’ wife was a soprano. The prominent horn parts are derived from his father, a horn player. At the very end, he quoted the ‘Transfiguration’ theme from his composition 60 years ago, Death and Transfiguration. Amongst the turmoil of his life, his last composition showed much purity and calmness, as if Strauss was ready to die. J.K.Rowling’s words come to mind, “he embraced Death as an equal and as a friend”. The Lied was published together with three other songs as the “Four Last Songs”.
Written by the one of the most despicable and unpleasant composers, the Ring cycle is one of the undisputed cornerstones of the opera. Wagner had composed this cycle, consisting of four operas, as an example of his visionary Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work). In this form, the great arts of poetry, aesthetics, dancing and above all music would be presented. Wagner believes that this would bring all the German people together, in unified celebration of their outstanding art. Sounds familiar? It is no coincidence that after Wagner’s death, his music continued to flourish under the patronage of Hitler himself. With the defeat and eventual condemnation of everything Nazi, Wagner’s music seems to have survived, even maintaining its respectable position in the arts. It seems humans are capable of separating good music and art from ugly politics.
Any respectable History student would tell you that the Battle of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) was a long and arduous siege of the Soviet capital by Hitler’s Nazi army. Coupled with the Battle of Stalingrad, Leningrad would see one of the greatest loss of lives and devastation of a city experienced by the Soviets. Dmitri Shostakovich was, himself, in the city at the time of the siege. He wrote this symphony originally to hail the heroes of Leningrad that allowed the capital of the Communist world to stand tall. It was so popular as a symbol of German Resistance that it was played often in the US and the UK, despite them being staunchly anti-Communist. After years passed, Shostakovich revealed his secret intention of denouncing Stalin’s neglect of the city. As Shostakovich said, ” Stalin destroyed it and Hitler finished it off”. This is particularly poignant in the first movement, with a syncopated and irregular march being heard amidst a calmer theme. This is thought to symbolize the Soviet army marching through the streets of Leningrad, and Shostakovich portrayed it in a sarcastic way that obviously denounces the army.
A 20th Century masterpiece that is, unfortunately, largely ignored. I am fortunate to have sung in the Asian premiere of this piece. The piece was borne as a small commission by BBC, to its massive structure. It calls for 2 choirs, a semi choir, large orchestra, a huge percussion section, organ and 2 brass bands. Beecham, conductor of the piece, urged Walton to add in as many instruments as possible. “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?”. The result is a massive emotional journey through the story of Belshazzar, echoed by the orchestra. Walton himself never took the work seriously. He referred to the Baritone solo, listing the many riches of Babylon as the “shopping list”. In a part, the singers shout a word “Slain!”. During a concert Walton announced he was going to conduct a portion of Belshazzar’s Feast. At his cue, the choir shouted this word, and Walton walked offstage with the baritone solo that did no sing a word, to thundering applause. The bloody and vengeful nature of the libretto caused the Anglican church to not recognize it for many years.