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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:

10

Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Rossini

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFt-iSxjmGs

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.

9

Messa da Requiem
Verdi

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.


8

Das Lied von der Erde
Mahler

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.

7

Missa Papae Marcelli
Palestrina

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.

6

The Well-Tempered Clavier
Bach

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0h7UJgVZGk

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.

5

Symphony no.45, the “Farewell”
Haydn

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.


4

Im Abendrot
Richard Strauss

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”.

3

Der Ring des Nibelungen
Wagner

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.


2

Symphony no.7, “Leningrad”
Shostakovich

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.

1

Belshazzar’s Feast
Walton

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.



  • Maria Cyprus

    Really enjoyed this one.

    I didn’t know a lot of the pieces but will definitely be checking out the complete pieces now

  • dangsthurt

    BOOORRRRIIIINNNG!!!!

    • AHI

      You sir are an ignorant fool! Open your mind just a little bit, if indeed you have a mind

      • Armin Tamzarian

        Interesting list. There are certainly some good entries. It’s just a shame that no. 3 seems to be nothing more than you trying to flame against Wagner, and no. 1 seems to be an advertisement for your choir.

        Also, bit more relativism would have been nice. Classical music isn’t that great. I mean, sure, there are some nice songs, but there also are a lot of bad songs. Especially the ‘divine gift’ part makes it look like classical music is the nec plus ultra of the musical world, while many people just don’t like it.

        It’s no problem to admit you prefer classical music, but the whole ‘one must like classical music or he’s a barbarian’ is getting kind of old.

        • Armin Tamzarian

          Woops, wrong reply. What I meant to say was:

          Do you enjoy reading about grindmetal, hardcore, dubstep or Lady Gaga for that matter? If not, then you’re just as much an ignorant fool as the troll you’re replying to.

          • Arsnl

            Can you sense a difference between:
            “Mum mum mum mah
            Mum mum mum mah
            […]Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh
            I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got
            […]Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin”
            and:
            ” symbolize the Soviet army marching through the streets of Leningrad, and Shostakovich portrayed it in a sarcastic way that obviously denounces the army.”
            Cuz i sure can. I hate a purist as much as the next guy but let’s not get too far.

          • Armin Tamzarian

            I’m just saying it’s a bit hypocritical to scold someone because he isn’t taking interest into a genre that you like, while you’re at the same time not taking interest into a genre he likes.

          • joe mama

            Dubstep. Hells yes.

          • bigski

            bluffin with my muffin…..hahaha. such profound lyrics !

  • Will Trame

    Good list. Always enjoy reading about musical trivia.

  • Great list as usual but unfortunately item 6 is flat-out wrong! Baroque instruments were never tuned to equal temperament—they generally used Meantone temperament, itself a derivation of the Puretone temperaments of Pythagoras and Aristoxenus. Puretone temperaments are ones which are based on whole-number ratios: Pythagoras’ scale was an iteration of the pure fifth, a vibrational ratio of 3:2. Iterate the ratio 3:2 twelve times, dropping each note by an appropriate number of octaves to fit around the base note, and you end up back at the note you started from—almost! In fact you end up with a note almost a quarter of a semitone sharper and so various schemes were developed to “lose” this overlap (known as the Pythagorean Comma) in amongst the other notes.

    The Meantone temperament of Baroque times was developed by Giuseppe Zarlino, the Maître de Chapelle of St. Marks in Venice and Francis Salinas, a blind musician and Professor of Music in Naples in the late 16th century, which redistributes the Pythagorean Comma by reducing the first four primary fifths. This gives a fairly good degree of concordancy for the first six keys in the cycle of fifths but remoter keys start sound weird (which is why Mozart for example rarely wrote in keys with more than four sharps or flats). In Meantone, play the fifth G#-D# and it’s so out of tune (around a third of a semitone sharper) that it was called the Wolf Tone.

    Equal temperament was developed around 1620 by a French monk called Marin Mersenne (although some people accredit Simon Stevin, an organ tuner at the workshops of Andreas Werckmeister with the discovery somewhat earlier in 1608). This discovery was know by Zarlino and Salinas but they disliked the severe mistuning of the thirds and sixths. Thus Equal temperament was certainly known about in Bach’s time but was regarded as a curiosity and deemed impractical to tune instruments that way.

    Research by the American musicologist John Barnes in the 1970s shown that what Bach actually used for this work used was a variation of a temperament devised by Francescantonio Vallotti and Thomas Young, one of a large number of so-called “well” temperaments developed around this time such as Fogliano’s Monochord, Romieu’s 1/10th Comma, Neidhardt’s 5th Circle 1/6 Comma and the like. These “well” temperaments attempt to adjust the tuning of the scale so that as many keys in the cycle of fifths as possible sounded concordant with each other. The reason for this was that it allowed composers to explore polyphony in a way never before possible, hence The Well-Tempered Clavier, the first major work to use all possible keys.

    Equal temperament levels the playing field completely by making the distance between each semitone exactly the same and thus allows the same degree of concordancy in every key but it comes at a price since not one interval is strictly in tune i.e., the interval is not a whole number ratio. It wasn’t until the the mid-19th century that equal temperament was adopted as the de facto tuning standard with the piano manufacturer Broadwoods leading the way.

    BTW, the above is horribly over-simplified but I think you get the drift :)

    =:~)

    • I tried to read the whole comment…but alas I failed, soooo yeah what he said

      • Mon

        HAHAHA! AGREE!

    • Arsnl

      Also Mersenne came up with the mersenne numbers that give way to mersenne primes. How’s that for one cool story?

    • Jim

      Well, I was going to pull them up on that, but I can’t write a better reply than you!

    • bigski

      man that dude chas is either very smart or im very dumb….i got no fukin idea what hes talking about ,but it was kinda fun reading…

    • curiouslittlerhino

      damn i was just going to say hat but you got to it first. haha FLAT-out wrong.

    • Mr.Jones

      Cool story bro.

  • Armin Tamzarian

    Interesting list. There are certainly some good entries. It’s just a shame that no. 3 seems to be nothing more than you trying to flame against Wagner, and no. 1 seems to be an advertisement for your choir.

    Also, bit more relativism would have been nice. Classical music isn’t that great. I mean, sure, there are some nice songs, but there also are a lot of bad songs. Especially the ‘divine gift’ part makes it look like classical music is the nec plus ultra of the musical world, while many people just don’t like it.

    It’s no problem to admit you prefer classical music, but the whole ‘one must like classical music or he’s a barbarian’ is getting kind of old.

  • Barry

    Good, list, but I am confused by this statement from #9: “The disappointed Verdi, who had written the Libera Me movement, ended his friendship with the conductor.” What conductor did he end this friendship with? The dead one (Rossini)?

  • Smith

    This was an okay list, but the comments were better to read. Sorry!!!

    • the comments were definately better than the list

  • oouchan

    I do find these lists to be interesting. I like knowing the “why” behind songs or compositions. I didn’t know there were 2 Barber ones written. That was neat.

    Cool list.

  • Chicken nuggets

    I love music of all sorts, but this list is as exciting as watching paint dry…

  • You know it’s a serious piece of research when it references Harry Potter…and manages to get the quote wrong.

    Also, your screed against Wagner seem really wrongheaded, though I suspect you’ve just got it in there as a cataylst comment in order to generate traffic and posts.

    Yes, Wagner was a MASSIVE anti-Semite who once wrote a pamphlet entitled “Jewishness in Music” (care to guess what that is about), would wear gloves every time he conducted Mendelssohn (which he would throw away in disgust after every performance, lest his hands be touched by Jewish music), etc, etc.

    But of all the things you could go after him for, you attack him for being a NATIONALIST.

    *EVERYONE* was a Nationalist in the 19th Century, especially in countries which had yet to be unified. Going after Wagner for Nationalism is like attacking Verdi for his role in the Risorgimento, or Shostakovich for his ‘support’ of the USSR (which didn’t work out too well for him)

    Then again, you got in a plug for your choir so I guess it all works out!

  • Auburn Tiger

    Lot of derp in these comments. Lot of derp…

    This list was more boring than I had anticipated. I thought the stories would be interesting, but they were pretty lackluster. I love classical music, but that didn’t make this any more interesting. At least I learned something I suppose. At least it wasn’t boring AND uninformative.

    • undaunted warrior 1

      Could not agree more !

  • Grant

    Didnt read the list because the writer came off as a jerk in the introduction.

  • Matt

    This might be the poorest collection of comments I’ve yet seen on a Listverse list…

  • Sardondi

    Great list. Appreciate the time and effort you put into it, Flying Dutchman. As for disagreements with your opinions, at least you provide a coherent and reasoned basis to support them…unlike most of the comments. I will say I think you’re being tough on Wagner. I have to wonder if you’re not scourging him for the fact Hitler liked him. And if a monster like Hitler loved him, ergo Wagner must be reprehensible, etc. Besides, there are many great composers who were egotistical, cruel, ambitious and manipulative.

    I agree with other commenters that these comments must have the single lowest collective IQ of any list on Listverse. Incredible. What is the glory of the internet – that it is purely democratic – is also one of its greatest failings. Rest assured the ignoramuses who have revealed themselves would be the first ones screaming foul if you were to go to their “Greatest Transformers” and “Coolest Ninja Weapons” lists to laugh at their childishness.

    • Arsnl

      “I have to wonder if you’re not scourging him for the fact Hitler liked him”
      No need to wonder. He was an antisemite.

      ” single lowest collective IQ of any list on Listverse. ” you probably are new to LV. Check out religion based lists. Or the abortion one. Oh dear the abortion list.
      Does such a concept of collective iq exist? Or comment iq? I guess you mean to say in a fancy (and wrong) way that those that said that the list was boring, are stupid. Why is that? Can one not like a particular genre of music or art or type of list or writing? Ebert thinks games can never be an art form. Is he stupid? Feynman played the bongos instead of playing the violin. My he must have been pretty childish.
      What one likes tells you nothing about that person’s iq level. If you like classical music lists, that doesnt make you smarter that someone that likes ninja lists. And that is a fact. Agreed one should argument why they didnt like something and most (except 2) did not.

  • Iain

    Minor point in Number 2 – Leningrad wasn’t the Soviet capital. In pre-Soviet days the Russian capital was St Petersburg, but the Soviets moved the capital back to its previous seat, Moscow, where it remains.

  • FlameHorse

    I wish you self-serving groundlings would write a list or shut up. There’s nothing at all wrong with or boring about this list. Everybody’s a critic, and not one critic among you can manage his or her own list. The list-writers, meanwhile, are mostly or completely laudatory or silent.

    Dutchman, you did fine work with this. Pay no attention to the twits.

    • skeeter

      you spelled twat wrong.

    • Auburn Tiger

      I agree. The lister did fine work. His first list was much more interesting though. He did the best he could with what he had here. I just didn’t find the material that interesting. He couldn’t have conjured up some sort of interesting story, so it’s not his fault. While certainly not a bad list, this was just a list I found to be particularly boring (the same way you all may find the list I’m working on to be boring if JFrater decides to publish it). Not all subject matter on listverse will interest everyone, but a common theme is that it’s all informative (usually).

      Or that’s how I see it anyway.

    • “I wish you self-serving groundlings would write a list or shut up”

      hmmmm an interesting concept! Let’s see I have a few ideas!

      Let’s look at the terms and conditions:

      “2. You agree that once your submitted list is published on listverse.com, Jamie Frater (representing Listverse.com) becomes the sole owner of all copyright and rights related to the list content.

      3. These terms include all rights of publication on the Internet or any other form of media including but not exclusively books, magazines, and newspapers.”

      Oh dear! Work on lists for nothing and no compensation? That goes against my strong principles, informed by the great Ayn Rand!

      But it doesn’t preclude me from providing criticism, which, to be honest, a lot of these lists richly deserve due to poor quality control and lack of over arching editorial oversight!

      (Y’all do put out some good ones, but it seems like there is a huge slump lately)

  • skeeter

    I personally didn’t find this list very interesting, but I can appreciate it for what it is. But what I don’t understand is this relatively recent rise in trolls here in the comment section. Just because one may not agree with another’s opinions, or taste in something is no reason to take it to the playground. Please people-one of the reasons I love this site was the fact that everyone seemed relatively intelligent, or at least respectful of one another. Don’t turn this great site into another ebaums world.

  • alright

    Booooooooringggg :/ I guess some like this BUT NOT ME!!! I’m the splitting imag of uncultorted!!!!111 Im a fat, lazy ignorant American slob who does nothing but hate on supposedly amazing list!!

  • fordmadoxford

    A curious list….I was interested and bored at the same time.

    Best of luck with the choir.

  • Piotrek

    Regarding # 7: There was no “Vatican” in the 16th century as it is understood today (I’m not talking about a geographical location here). The Catholic church, the Holy See, or the pope would have called the church council.

    • Piotrek

      BTW, I really liked this list. :-)

  • Yossarian

    Comparing Wagner to Hitler? This is the post that made me delete listverse from my book marks.

  • Oh dear, I never thought about the curse of 9 symphonies… I just thought it was a common phenomena.

    Interesting indeed.

  • SJS

    Thank you for recognizing Belshazzar’s Feast. This is one of my all time favorites. Attending a live performance of this is on my bucket list. I once read that when it was commissioned Walton knew very little of the story of Belshazzar, has anyone else come across this?

  • colbz

    this has got to be the most boring list ive ever tried to read.. i made it through the first paragraph and couldnt read anymore

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