Carl Maria von Weber ‘Bassoon Concerto’: A Triumphant Bassoon

Dearest readers, I apologise for the lack of blogs in the past month, I am still trying to find a golden balance with my work load. I feel like I am nearly there now, so hopefully blogs will return to being published more regularly. To celebrate the next Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra concert this coming Saturday (10th March), I am writing this blog on Carl Maria von Weber, and his Bassoon Concerto. 

Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was born in 1786 (and died in 1826). He is now known as one of the first significant composers of the original Romantic school. Weber’s music, especially his operas, influenced the development of composers such as Mendelssohn, Wagner and Meyerbeer. As well as being a forefront figure in Romantic Opera (Romantische Oper), Weber was also a great pianist. He composed sonatas, concertos and a concert piece for piano, which was further acknowledged and interpreted by the likes of Liszt and Chopin.

Weber is remembered for his forward-thinking compositional style. His Concertino for Horn and Orchestra asks the soloist to use multiphonics (producing two notes simultaneously), which is a technique that is not only very difficult, but rarely used in classical music of this time. Weber wrote concertos for clarinet, bassoon and horn, all of which are popular with instrumentalists today.

Homage has been paid to Weber from popular 20th Century composers, such as Debussy and Stravinsky. Mahler also completed Weber’s unfinished comic opera Die drei Pintos. Paul Hindemith also composed the popular concert piece Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber – which you can read all about here.

Weber’s ever-popular Bassoon Concerto in F Major was originally composed in 1811, but was later revised in 1822. Whilst visiting Munich in 1811, Weber was asked to put a concert on for the Queen. After impressing the court with his Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, Weber was on the lookout to write a new concerto. Weber took interest in German bassoonist, Georg Friedrich Brandt, and composed his Concerto for Bassoon. It took Weber a mere four days to compose the work, and the first performance took place on 28th December, 1811.

The revisions took place four years before Weber’s death. He made a deal with Schlesinger (a music publisher) to publish some of his older works, the Concerto for Bassoon being one of these. Not huge changes were made, but an expansion of some orchestral sections, and some re-scoring were made.

It is often noted that Weber’s father wanted his children to become ‘the next Mozart’, and perhaps this was not the case. However, Weber followed in Mozart’s footsteps when it came to composing outstanding bassoon concertos. Both Weber’s and Mozart’s bassoon concertos are among the most popular in bassoon repertoire.

The concerto consists of three movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo (F Major)

II. Adagio (Bb Major)

III. Rondo: Allegro (F Major)

The first movement is in classical sonata form. It is in 4/4 time, and is in the tonic key of F major. There is an orchestral introduction, which focuses primarily on the tonics and dominants of F major. The melodic material is taken from the first and second themes, which come later in the movement. The march-like introduction could be argued to be a dramatic build up to the soloist entering, which highlights Weber’s flair for opera and theatrics. Two bars before the soloist enters, the timpani is left playing an F at pianissimo, creating an expectancy of the soloist. The bassoon then enters triumphantly with the militaristic first theme.

The dotted rhythms throughout the first movement characterises the bassoon, and it is a skill that Weber has become known for. The virtuosity of the solo part is built up on theatrics also. With long scalic runs, jumping from high and low registers, and tricky trills and arpeggios, this bassoon concerto is difficult for even the modern bassoon. The final cadence, for instance, in the first movement sees the bassoon ascend to a high D, which was, at the time, the highest note a bassoon could reach (the modern bassoon can now go higher, but not without a lot of effort still!). It is often argued that the style of this first movement is resonant of both classical and romantic styles, to which Weber is known to be a significant figure in both.

The second movement, Adagio, is in the subdominant key of Bb major. This movement has been likened to that of slow arias from opera, especially Italian operas, due to its stylistic features. The bassoon melody is perhaps on the of the most beautiful melodies written for the instrument. This movement is less about the virtuosity of the soloist, but the overall colour and texture of the work. There is a small section in the middle where Weber experiments with the solo bassoon playing in a three-part texture with two horns. It is unusual, but also rather poignantly placed in the movement. This movement ends with the only cadenza in the concerto, which Weber wrote out for the soloist.

The third movement returns to the tonic of F major, and is a lighthearted rondo. The quick pace of the this movement makes it very exciting to listen to. The soloist must have keen dexterity, however, as again, there are many scalic passages, with tricky key changes. The humour of this movement is certainly my favourite characteristic of this work, and this, for me, is what makes it the most exciting. The finale is perhaps one of the most virtuosic to ever be written for bassoon. A flurry of scalic passages and arpeggios showcase the musical dominance of the bassoon.

I do hope you have enjoyed exploring this wonderful concerto with me today. If you fancy seeing it live (with me also playing the orchestra – bonus!), then come on down to see Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra play on Saturday 10th March. May Weber’s music live on for many years to come!

Happy reading!

Recommended Recording:

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Toru Takemitsu ‘Requiem for String Orchestra’: ‘Death is a Part of Life’

Welcome to Day T of my alphabet challenge! Today’s blog will be on Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu and one of his more well-known works, Requiem for String Orchestra. Regarded as one of the most influential composers from Japan in the twentieth century, I hope you will find this blog as exciting as I will!

Toru Takemitsu was born in 1930 in Tokyo. At a very young age (from around 14), Takemitsu was called into military service. However, during his time in the military, Takemitsu became aware of Western classical music. During the post-war U. S. occupation of Japan, Takemistu was taken ill for a long period of time. Bed-ridden, Takemistu took this opportunity to listen to as much Western music as he could on the U. S. network. He said, much later in his life, that he began to distance himself from Japanese music, because it reminded him too much of the war.

Although completely self-taught at this stage, Takemistu began to compose at the age of sixteen, by using influences from the Western classical music he had heard whilst ill. In an interview, Takemistu suggested that music ‘clarified’ his identity, because “after the war, music was the only thing left.” Throughout his fruitful career, Takemistu only studied under Yasuji Kiyose for a brief time, but largely he was a self-taught composer and musician.

As well as his orchestral and chamber works, Takemistu is also remembered for his ideas regarding electronic music technology. In 1951, Takemistu was one of the founding members of the anti-academic group called ‘Jikken Kōbō’ (‘experimental workshop’). This was an artistic group that was established for multidisciplinary collaboration on ‘mixed-media projects.’ Takemistu composed many works throughout this period, and he also composed some works with the aid of electronic tape recording, such as Relief Statique (1955), and Vocalism A.I (1956). At this point, Takemistu’s music was largely kept in Japan and the surrounding area, that was, until the late 1950s, where, by chance, he hit international fame. When Requiem for String Orchestra was premiered in 1957, it was received well. In 1958, by chance the great Igor Stravinsky heard this work on his visit to Japan. It has been noted that NHK (a Japanese broadcaster), had organised the latest Japanese music for Stravinsky to hear on his visit, and by mistake Takemistu’s Requiem was put on. NHK tried to turn the piece off, but Stravinsky wanted to listen to the end, saying that he admired the work for its ‘passionate writing’ and ‘sincerity throughout.’ After this, Stravinsky invited Takemistu for lunch. Takemistu then received a commission for a new work from the Koussevitsky Foundation, which he assumed had come from Aaron Copland, via Stravinsky’s recommendation. For this commission he wrote Dorian Horizon (1966), which was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Aaron Copland himself. 

Throughout his rise to international fame, Takemistu’s style gradually developed. He began meeting some influential composers, which deeply affected his music, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Peter Sculthorpe. More avant-garde compositions such as Waves (1976) and Quatrain (1977) highlight Takemistu’s shift in compositional style. It was around this time, in the 1970s, that Takemistu began incorporating traditional Japanese musical ideas into his compositions. Works such as In an Autumn Garden for gagaku (1973) and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) emphasise this effectively. His later works show the dichotomy between Eastern and Western traditions even more so, which is perhaps why Takemistu became such a tour-de-force in the twentieth century.

Towards the last years of his life, Takemistu began to collaborate on an opera with novelist Barry Gifford, and director Daniel Schmid. Whilst writing the plan for the musical structure between 1996-1996, Takemistu passed away in February 1996 due to contracting pneumonia, whilst undergoing treatment for bladder cancer – he was 65.

Since his death, Takemistu is often regarded as one of the most important composers that Japan has ever produced. He was the first Japanese composer to be fully recognised and accepted in the West, and still remains an important figure for younger generations of Japanese composers.

Takemistu’s style, although uniquely his own genre, was, of course, influenced by others, including the likes of Claude Debussy, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen. From early on his career, Takemistu bent the rules of Western music, and instead of following lots of formulas and calculations he ‘let the sounds have the freedom to breathe’ further commenting that ‘one cannot plan his life, neither can he plan music.’ One could really go on and on about all the techniques and influences Takemistu had throughout his time, so this is why I am ending the biography part here, and will now be moving onto his popular Requiem for String Orchestra. 

Composed as a tribute to his mentor, Fumio Hayasaka (also a composer), Requiem highlights Takemistu’s avant-garde style of composition, with heavy influences from the Second Viennese School). There has been discussion on this piece and how it sounds very ‘Western’, rather than a mix between the two traditions. For me, however, I feel like one must look under the surface to see the Japanese flavour within the score. Although the tonality and orchestration is very reminiscent of Western culture, it is, perhaps, the atmosphere that is more reminiscent of Japanese culture. The sense of ‘staticism’ and ‘speechlessness’ is very much in the lanes of Japanese aesthetics ‘mono no Aware’. Described in the novel, The Tale of Genji by Japanese philosopher, Motoori Noringa, ‘mono no aware’ exhibits what is seen as traditional Japanese aesthetic consciousness. ‘Aware’ portrays misery and sadness, ‘mono no’ thus shows the ‘aware’ to the world, usually in the abstract sense. This, in Japanese tradition, represents ‘fleeting beauty’ and signifies a sad, yet unwavering beauty. Are you still with me? This is a very complex idea, but if you keep this in mind whilst listening to Requiem, you may understand better what this thought represents for Takemistu.

Requiem is in an ABA structure (Lent-Modéré-Lent). The structure adds to the intensity of the work. Starting out quietly, with muted strings, the dynamics gradually appear, and the ensemble sound both hollow and thick with homophonic texture – playing to the idea of ‘mono no aware.’ The passages of crescendo and decrescendos mark the inhales and exhales of a singer, making the work even closer to the listener. Takemistu describes the use of monotonic change of a single note as a ‘River of Sound.’ For Takemistu, the blending of all of these sounds creates a link between them, hence the idea of a ‘river of sound.’

Requiem has a rich tonality throughout, which is accentuated through the largely-homophonic texture, and monotonic changes. The second section (Modéré), is even tenser due to the shift into a slightly faster tempo. The luscious syncopated passages are said to represent the grievances of loved ones. This is emphasised by the changes in texture, with some passages utilising all parts, and others only some of the ensemble.

The final section recalls the opening of the work, however it is shortened somewhat. The recap to the first section is noted to be a reminder of the past, which brings the beauty of sadness. This perhaps represents Takemistu’s struggle for life against illness. The idea of ‘mono no aware’ also runs prominent here, with this quote summing up the work quite neatly:

“Mono no Aware is a sentiment towards nature and life, that life is part of death, and death is a part of life.”

Therefore, one must recognise the truth of the soreness of life (which is momentary), if one may achieve a peaceful mind: a natural realm of eternity. Here is where I believe Takemistu’s Japanese heritage is placed in Requiem. Japanese aesthetics are complex, and yet, when listening to Requiem it all becomes so simple: when East meets West, an eternal beauty can be created.

Takemistu has left behind many works for an array of different ensembles, and each work is completely different from one another. His unique compositional style is still sought after today from students and composers alike. I do hope you have enjoyed this blog on Toru Takemistu and his work Requiem for String Orchestra. Join me very soon for Day U of my Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Jean Sibelius ‘Kuolema (Death) No. 2 ‘Scene with Cranes”: Flying towards Freedom

Welcome to Day ‘S’ of my blogging alphabet challenge! For today’s instalment I shall be delving into the exciting world of Jean Sibelius. Instead of picking one of his more well-known works, I have decided to choose my personal favourite work by Sibelius, which is the second movement from the Kuolema suite ‘Scene with Cranes’ – enjoy!

Jean Sibelius was born on 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna Finland. When he was ten years old, Sibelius was given a violin by his musical uncle Pehr, who soon became his musical tutor. A few years before, Sibelius took up piano lessons, but whilst learning his teacher (who was also his aunt), rapped his knuckles when he played an incorrect note, so he preferred learning the violin. Before studying music at university, Sibelius began to study la at the Imperial Alexander University, Finland. He soon transferred to the Helsinki Music Institute (now aptly named the Sibelius Academy), where he studied composition between 1885-1889. Further to this, Sibelius also studied in Berlin (1889-1890) and in Vienna (18901891), with Albert Becker and Robert Fuchs respectively.

Throughout his compositional career, Sibelius largely focused on orchestral music. His main influences were Anton Bruckner (whom he claimed was the ‘greatest living composing’), Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. Perhaps most well-known for his symphonies and tone poems, Sibelius is recognised for his unwavering Nationalism, that often translates into his music. Finlandia, a tone poem, is a celebrated work of the composer, with other works such a Kullervo, En saga, Karelia Suite and Tapiola also being popular in concert halls. As aforementioned, Sibelius drew his influences from different composers, each for different genres (e.g. Richard Wagner for his operas). Above all, however, Sibelius took great inspiration from Lizst. Sibelius’ symphonic style stood in contrast to his main symphonic rival, Gustav Mahler, with both composers exploring different variations, structures and genres.

Remaining one of the leading Finnish composers to ever emerge from the country, Sibelius’ life and works still influence ensembles and composers today. English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax, both dedicated their Fifth Symphonies to Sibelius. Although largely very popular, Sibelius has also come under much criticism from people such as Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson. It is seen that criticism for Sibelius stems from his unique approach to form and tonality, where he would take one path, his contemporaries would take another. Criticism did not get in the way of Sibelius, however, with him famously saying that:

“Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

In his old age, Sibelius was a supporter of the new generation of composers, such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók and Richard Strauss. Two days before his death, it has been recorded that Sibelius:

“Was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. ‘There they come, the birds of my youth’, he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.”

This anecdote is important to remember, when we start delving into the chosen piece for this blog. Sibelius died on 20th September 1957, after suffering a brain haemorrhage, aged 91. Sibelius was survived by his wife, Aino, who lived for a further eight years before her death. She is buried next to her husband.

Kuolema (“Death”) is a set of six works which were used as incidental music for a play by the same name written by Arvid  Järnefelt. The first performance was at Helskini’s National Theatre in December, 1903. Although revised under two opus numbers after the premiere, the six original movements were as follows:

I. Tempo di valse lente – Poco risoluto (Act I)

II. Moderato (Paavali’s Song – Act II)

III. Moderator assai – Moderato (Elsa’s Song – Act II)

IV. Andante (The Cranes – Act II)

V. Moderato (Act III)

VI. Andante ma non tanto (Act III)

In 1904, Sibelius revised No. 1 as Valse Triste, which is now one of his most well-known works. This was premiered in Helsinki on 25th April, 1904. In 1906, Sibelius then revised No. 3 and 4, under the title Scene with Cranes. This was premiered on 14th December, 1906. Although the sister work to Valse Triste, Scene with Cranes has stayed on the outskirts of Sibelius’ repertory.

Scene with Cranes is scored for string orchestra, plus timpani and a pair of Bb clarinets. The work lasts for around four minutes and is 59 bars in length. Beginning with the first violins, who along with the rest of the string section, are muted, play out a beautiful melody. There is a feeling of being static in places, like one is floating, which is also enhanced by the aimlessness manner of this melody. There is no centre, or solid origin of the melody, making it just appear like it is floating in thin air. The lower strings enter shortly after with soft accompaniment, and the strings work as a unit to create a very effective and dynamic unit. At times, the orchestra go down to pp in dynamic, making it atmospheric, mysterious and slightly unnerving in places.

The clarinets, who represent the cranes, are actually only heard in eight bars of this work, but these bars are prominent, and usually lead to the next section of the piece. A series of sforzandos are heard, which the clarinets react to with six calls, which represent the cranes calling out (perhaps to death?). The second section of the work is started by a trill in the upper strings. This then, after a short pause, leads us back to the watery, atmospheric initial string motif from the beginning of the scene. The way this melody is revisited resets the tone, after the more aggressive call outs from the cranes. The lower strings then take a more prominent role, bringing the dynamic up, leading to a quieter section. Soloists can then be heard in the cellos, violas and violins, which develop the main melodic theme. There is some sense of relief here also, which makes the resolution of this work even more breathtaking. Scene With Cranes finishes with the stings slowly dying away after the small exchanges of solo lines. At this point, the timpanist also enters, for the two bars they are in, with a very soft ppp roll (although sometimes this may be hard to hear over the string soloist).

Earlier, I mentioned about a famous anecdote that was published soon before Sibelius’ death, where he returned from a walk and was met by cranes. Kuolema translates into ‘Death’, and it could be suggested that the cranes represent the freedom that death can offer. In mythology, cranes are seen as symbolising freedom and eternal youth. Therefore, that anecdote could be a nod to Scene With Cranes, with the knowledge that Sibelius wrote it with this in mind. What I believe as one of Sibelius’ more underrated works, I find Scene With Cranes outstanding in the handling of melody, tonality and structure (or lack thereof). A wonderful way to celebrate such a fine composer and a fine alphabet challenge! I do hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have writing it, be sure to join me very soon for Day T in my alphabet challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:



Maurice Ravel ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’: A Whimsical Memory

Dearest readers, welcome to Day ‘R’ of my Alphabet Challenge, and I have been so very excited to share this next composer and work with you! For Day R, this blog will be looking into the brilliant Maurice Ravel and his work (originally for piano, but for this blog we will be looking into the version for orchestra) – Le tombeau de Couperin. I hope you enjoy this work as much as I do – happy Ravel-ing!

Born on March 7th, 1875, Maurice Ravel was born into a music-loving family. Ravel spent the first three months of his life in the Basque town of Ciboure in France, which was very close to the Spanish border. Soon after being baptised, the Ravel family made the move to Paris. Although not musicians themselves, both of Ravel’s parents were keen music aficionados, with Ravel recalling that:

“Throughout my childhood I was sensitive to music. My father, much better educated in this art than most amateurs are, knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age.”

At age seven, Ravel began piano lessons with Henry Ghys, which led him to study harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René. Ravel soon applied to one of the most prestigious music colleges in the world – Conservatoire de Paris. One year, Ravel won first prize in the Conservatoire’s piano competition in 1891. Due to his stubbornness as a student, Ravel was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895. From here, Ravel pursued his interest in composition, rather than piano performance.

After working for two years on composition, Ravel was readmitted to the Conservatory to study composition with Gabriel Fauré. After leaving education, Ravel, alongside many other artists, joined an informal group called ‘Les Apaches’ (‘The Hooligans’), which represented their status as outcast artists. Alongside Ravel in Les Apaches, was Claude Debussy, who was twelve years his senior. The two were friendly for over ten years. However, the first decade of the 1900s saw their friendship dwindle away due to both musical and personal reasons. Fans of the two would often degrade the other, which has made the chronology and ‘who inspired who’ very blurred.

Ravel’s catalogue of music spans up to around 85 pieces of music, many of which are piano works. These piano works were, more often than not, taken by Ravel after being published, so that he could re-orchestrate them into independent pieces for orchestra. Ravel composed in a range of different styles, including opera, chamber music, ballet music and song cycles, however, he did not compose any symphonies. Although referred to as a key figure in the impressionist era, Ravel also drew on influences from the likes of Schubert, Debussy, Satie, Chopin and Mozart. Ravel’s harmonic language is regarded as progressive, complex and often influenced by various different genres, such as jazz, baroque, classicism and romanticism.

As aforementioned, Ravel was well-known for being a master of orchestration, whether that was of his own works, or other composers’. Due to Ravel’s focus largely being on orchestration, there are actually only four orchestral compositions that were actually intended to be concert works for symphony orchestra (two of which are concertos!). Other works, such as Daphnis et Chloé, Alborada del gracioso, Valses nobles et sentimentales and Le tombeau de Couperin were written as either stage shows, or for solo piano. It is generally accepted that Ravel’s orchestrations clarify and celebrate his rich and complex harmonic language, as well as bringing to life the score in a multi-dimensional way.

Originally a six-movement solo composition for piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917. ‘Tombeau’ is a musical term from the Baroque era meaning ‘a piece written as a memorial.’ Every movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to the memory of a friend of Ravel’s, who had died fighting in WWI. The form of the work imitates that of a Baroque dance suite, the movements, the key, and who they are dedicated to are shown below:

  • I: Prélude (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot
  • II: Fugue (E minor) in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi
  • III: Forlane (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc
  • IV: Rigaudon (C major) in memory of Pierrer and Pascal Gaudin
  • V: Menuet (G major) in memory of Jean Dreyfus
  • VI: Toccata (E minor) in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave

Ravel decided to orchestrate only four movements of this suite for orchestra, which are the Prélude (I), Forlane (III), Menuet (IV) and the Rigaudon (IV). This orchestrated version was premiered in February, 1920 by the Pasdeloup Orchestra. Although this blog will be discussing the four orchestrated movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin, I will make the full piano suite available on the Classicalexburns playlist.


Beginning with a circling and whimsical first motif in the oboe, the atmosphere is quickly locked into place in the Prélude. This particular opening motif requires a virtuoso oboe player to be able to tackle it, as it is repetitive, on-the-beat (in 12/16), and it is decorated with fast-moving mordents and trills. This then leads into the strings taking over for the next portion of the movement. A descending circling sequence is heard, to which the winds then join in, until the whole orchestra swell up together, before the texture breaks off again. The oboe acts as a soloist in this movement, and its opening motif often returns. Ravel utilises chromatic harmony within this piece, which can be heard in both the melodic lines and the lower sustaining parts. Ravel really does utilise every instrument in the orchestra, from the muted trumpets, to the harp, to the upper strings – every instrument is of great importance and adds something very special to the texture of this piece. The piece comes to a close with all parts dropping up, before a large glissando from the harp, which brings the flurry of upper winds in for a final trill in the home key of E minor, before the movement ends.

II. Forlane

The second movement, entitled Forlane, is based on the traditional Italian folk dance. With a bouncy 6/8 time signature, there is a certain charm about this movement. The first motif heard acts as the seed, which then blossoms throughout the rest of the movement. The strings open this motif, but then take an accompanying role when the woodwinds enter and begin a call and response figure of the movement. There is more dissonance in this movement than in the Prélude, but it is usually only fleeting, and the whimsical atmosphere that was so prominent in the previous movement still remains. The Forlane is very repetitive, which lines up with it taking inspiration from a folk dance. The movement ends with the voices of some instruments playing a small variation of the main theme, which then fades away.

III. Menuet

Set in 3/4 time, the Menuet is at a slower pace and, once again, showcases the oboe. This movement is very quaint, and delicate, which differs somewhat from the slightly heavier texture of the Forlane. Although beginning with a thinner texture, the Menuet grows into much thicker texture through the middle and end sections, showing Ravel’s strength in orchestration and working with a variety of different textures. The ending, similar to the other two before it, ends quietly with different instruments chipping in at the last moment, before suddenly finishing.

IV. Rigaudon 

The final movement of the orchestrated version of Le Tombeau de Couperin is the Rigaudon, the most lively of all the movements. Based in C major, this movement is intricate and fast-paced. The main theme heard at the start is repeated throughout the ensemble, until the second section starts, which is much slower. This vast change in both character and speed acts as a time of reflection, until the first theme then returns once more the close this exciting suite of music.

There is no definitive reason as to why Ravel only chose to orchestrate these four movements for orchestra. Perhaps he thought they would work the best in an orchestra setting? Perhaps these were his favourite movements? We will probably never know, I believe we should be thankful we have this music in various forms as it is truly wonderful. I personally feel that the Prélude is one of Ravel’s finest compositions. I do hope that you have enjoyed this blog on Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Both the original solo piano version and the orchestrated versions are worth listening to, as they are full of Ravel’s fantastic compositional style that is still admired today. I would like to dedicate this blog to a friend and fellow Ravel lover, Nadim Jauffur. I hope listening to this suite makes your day that little bit better!

Join me very soon for Day ‘S’ of my Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Piano version:


Tania León ‘Batá’: Exploring African Traditions

Dearest readers, I must apologise for the delay in this blog, the last week has been very busy and life has very much been in the way of me writing. Here we are though on Day ‘L’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Today’s instalment will be on Cuban-born composer, Tania León – enjoy!

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1943, Tania León began learning the piano at the young age of four years old. Twenty years on, she had earned her bachelors and master degrees in music from the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory. After this, she made the move to New York and continued her studies there. As well as a composer, León is also known as an advisor to arts organisations and an educator. Her work has been often recognised and in 1998 she was awarded the New York Governor’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

In 1969, León became a founding member and first musical director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem (where she established its music school and orchestra). León is a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, and also guest lectures at Harvard and other prestigious institutes. She has also been a guest conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa, and Beethovenhalle Orchestra in Bonn. She has also been composer in residence with a range of different orchestras and ensembles, which has made her catalogue of music grow steadily over the last few decades. León has composed many chamber works, orchestral works, vocal works and operas, which have been recognised worldwide.

In 2010, León’s work for flute and piano , Alma, was performed in her home town of Havana at the Leo Brouwer Festival of Chamber Music. Her catalogue of compositions is extensive, so it has been a difficult task to pick just one to write about today. I have chosen her 1985 orchestral work, Batá for this blog.

Focusing on the ritual drumming of the Yoruban people of West Africa, Batá, utilises Afro-Cuban percussion and African rhythms. Batá drums are two-headed and have an hourglass shaped body. Throughout Batá, León emphasises the art of improvisation by using Western techniques such as hemiolas, syncopation and irregular phrasings. Texture is also a prominent feature of this work, with timbres being mixed within instruments to create different effects. For instance, the opening of the work sees the piccolo and muted trumpet sound combined creating a piercing and dissonant sound. The work takes around five minutes to perform, and is 167 bars long. It isn’t until around half way through that the first clear reference to African rhythm is heard. The cowbell is at the forefront of these African rhythms, which are often in 6/8 time.

The wash of angular melodies throughout gives the impression of very long phrases, which all have unique articulations. Batá highlights León’s handling of the orchestra and the rhythmic vitality she writes in this particular work. Each pattern, or section is heavily decorated with complex rhythmic structures, which offer varying effects to the work. León juxtaposes compound and simple metres to create contrasting subdivisions of notes, resulting in incredibly clever polyphonic writing for orchestra.

Batá is a piece for the world, and it’s inclusion of African traditional drumming, as well as León’s familiar Cuban twist, makes this work so very intriguing. I would like to end this blog with a quote from the composer herself:

“I am who I am, thanks to my mestizo heritage and my ancestors from China, Nigeria, France, and Spain. I’m a citizen of the world with a global consciousness, and I do not like to be categorised by race, gender, or nationality. My music is my contribution to mankind. This is my heritage and I’m proud of it.”

Definitely something we should all be aware of.

Join me very soon for the next instalment of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Karl Jenkins ‘Palladio’: Mathematically Structured Music

Welcome to Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! An exciting letter indeed, and I have chosen to write about composer Karl Jenkins, and his instantly recognisable Palladio, for string orchestra.

Sir Karl William Pamp Jenkins (CBE), was born on 17th February, 1944, in Penclawdd, Wales. He first received music training from his father, who was a choirmaster and chapel organist. Jenkins learnt the oboe, and played in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Further to this, he went and studied music at Cardiff University, and then at the Royal Academy of Music.

Regarded as the ‘most performed living composer in the world’, Jenkins’ work can be heard in films, TV series and concert halls. In 2005, Jenkins composed the score for the feature film, River Queen, which subsequently won the Golden Goblet Award for ‘Best Score’. Jenkins is also well-known for his Adiemus project, which combined Western classical styles with ethnic vocal sounds and percussion, with a new, invented language. Jenkins is also celebrated for his royal commissions such as his harp concerto Over the Stone, which was for HRH The Prince of Wales’ harpist. He has also worked with euphonium virtuoso, David Childs, violinist Marat Bisengaliev and Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel.

Jenkins has a large catalogue of recorded music, including:

  • Requiem 
  • This Land of Ours
  • Stabat Mater
  • Palladio

Apart from the score itself, the name Palladio has caused much discussion as to its origins. Put simply, it refers to Venice-born architect, Andrea Palladio. The form is a concerto grosso for string orchestra, with Jenkins saying this about the work:

Palladio was inspired by the sixteenth-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose work embodies the Renaissance celebration of harmony and order. Two of Palladio’s hallmarks are mathematical harmony and architectural elements borrowed from classical antiquity, a philosophy which I feel reflects my own approach to composition. The first movement I adapted and used for the ‘Shadows’ A Diamond is Forever television commercial for a worldwide campaign. The middle movement I have since rearranged for two female voices and string orchestra, as heard in Cantus Insolitus from my woks Songs of Sanctuary.

Palladio, composed in 1995, is in three movements:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Largo
  3. Vivace

The first movement utilises unity, with the main theme (you’ll know it when you hear it!) being played in unison by the whole string orchestra. This small kernel of melodic material and movement is then taken and developed throughout all three movements, but most obviously in the first. The way Jenkins has composed this is resonant to composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, with the first movement definitely taking some inspiration from hi Four Seasons. The celebration of this baroque sound is heard throughout all three movements. There is a lot of light and shade throughout, with communication between instruments playing a key part here. Starting together, solo parts begin to emerge and alternate between solo and tutti markings, creating drama and suspense. Jenkins also utilises dynamics to build tension, adding to this idea of dramatic music.

The second movement, largo, begins with a pulsating figure, which moves in a chromatic manner. Again, the ensemble are playing together, until the solo violin emerges with the main melodic figure. The accompaniment offered by the lower parts does not waver from the opening pulsating rhythms. Unlike the first movement, the second is very slow and solemn, creating a very different atmosphere. The solo violin sings above the accompaniment, highlighting some really heart-wrenching melodies. Again, dynamics really help the music along, with the accompaniment building with the intensity of the soloist, and then quickly dying away to create the vision of nothingness, perhaps.

The final movement is quick, and emphasises the importance of timbre at the beginning, with there being a mix of pizzicato and arco parts. The jaunty and brash melodic idea is repeated, steadily going through different harmonies for over two minutes. Soon, this idea is developed into a less-harsh style of playing, and one that is very resonant of the first movement. The ensemble is the soloist for this movement, and everything is played in unison, creating a powerful wall of sound. As aforementioned, with this score being inspired by Andrea Palladio, the harmony and structures are rigid and very mathematical, something that is less-heard of in the 21st Century.

An exciting way to celebrate Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Join me very soon, where I will be exploring a very exciting composer and work to celebrate Day ‘K’!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Paul Hindemith ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber’: Double Take!

Dearest readers and classical music fans alike, welcome to Day ‘H’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Delighted to have your company this evening as I begin to explore the German composer, Paul Hindemith. For this blog, I shall be looking into his orchestral work, and arguably his most popular work, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. 

Born in November 1895 in Hanau (near Frankfurt), Paul Hindemith engaged with music at a young age. Starting with playing the violin, Hindemith later attended Frankfurt’s Hoch’sche Konservatorium, where he studied violin performance with Adolf Rebner. Further to this, Hindemith also studied composition with Arnold Mendelssohn and Bernhard Sekles. In 1917, Hindemith was sent to join the German army, where he played the bass drum in the regiment band, and he also formed a string quartet. In May 1918, his diary entries showed he only survived grenade attacks “by good luck” whilst serving as a sentry in Flanders.

After returning from war, Hindemith founded the Amar Quartet, where he played viola. He began travelling quite extensively, both on tour, and through his other musical projects. From Germany to Egypt to Turkey and France, Hindemith ended up a very well-travelled man. In 1946, Hindemith became a US citizen, although he returned to Europe in 1953, where he lived in Zurich. In the last few years of his life, Hindemith began to conduct more, namely his own compositions, which were then recorded. After a decline in his physical health, Hindemith died on 28th December 1963, age 68.

Hindemith is remembered as a prolific composer of his time, and he produced both Romantic and expressionist works, which he then developed into an even more unique and complex style by the 1920s. Broadly, this style has been described as ‘neoclassical’, with researchers describing Hindemith’s style as ‘resonant of early Schoenberg, contrapuntal like Bach and with the Classical clarity of Mozart.’

Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber was composed in 1943. As the title suggests, Symphonic Metamorphosis takes various melodies from different works by Weber. The idea came from choreographer Léonide Massine, who suggested to Hindemith that he should arrange music by Weber for a ballet. After sketching out some movements for the ballet, the project fell through after Hindemith and Massine had too many ‘artistic differences.’ Massine felt that Hindemith’s score was “too personal” (what?!), and vice-versa, Hindemith felt that Massine’s staging and backdrops were too strange. Therefore, in 1943, Hindemith took the music sketches from this ballet and created Symphonic Metamorphosis, a bright, lavish composition for orchestra. After being premiered in 1944, Symphonic Metamorphosis gained instant success and praise from audiences in New York. Today, it has remained Hindemith’s most popular work.

Why Carl Maria von Weber, I hear you cry? Well, Weber (1786-1826) was a very important figure in the development of German opera in the classical era. Further to this, his music also had a small influence on the beginning of Romanticism. Weber retained importance and a legacy with later composers, which is interesting considering in today’s concert halls, it is actually quite rare to hear a piece by Weber.

Hindemith took various melodies from some of Weber’s more obscure piano works. In homage to the composer, Hindemith preserves the themes pretty much exactly as Weber composed them, as well as retaining the structure of the works as well. However, to balance this out, and ‘making it his own’, Hindemith changed everything else, which includes the harmony, extending melodic phrases and the development of the work as a whole. If you listen to Weber’s works next to Hindemith’s, you can hear the melodies and how little they have been changed. What I find intriguing, is how Hindemith’s final product, as a whole, sounds so far away from Weber’s style, but perhaps that is the point!

Symphonic Metamorphosis is in four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Scherzo
  3. Andantino
  4. Marsch

The first movement, Allegro, is upbeat and militaristic. It is based on Weber’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, which Hindemith used to play to his wife. Hindemith makes this melody into a fully fledged orchestral movement. The A and B sections highlight the two principle themes, which are threaded throughout this movement. There is a certain intensity felt throughout this short movement, with the ‘end product’, if you will, being the cadences. Hindemith develops Weber’s sonata by expanding the cadences, decorations and harmonic movement, making it an exciting interpretation.

The second movement, a scherzo, explores the incidental music that Weber originally composed for a play called Turandot. This play was set in ancient China, and the first melody heard is resonant of Chinese musical tradition. This movement highlights the moving between different eras, starting at baroque, and ending in twentieth-Century America. Hindemith’s orchestration shows the light and shade between instruments with extremities in pitches. The conversations between the instruments create isorhythmic patterns, which become noticeably denser as the movement progresses. Hindemith also utilises counterpoint, which shows the influence of the baroque era. The end brings thunderous drumming and the main Turandot melody, and it has been said these last phrases signal its survival.

The slow third movement is based on Weber’s Piano Duet Op. 3 No. 2. The serenity within this movement is more than welcome after the tumultuous second movement. The melodies are smoother, the rhythms are set in a balanced 2 throughout most of the movement. The upper woodwinds glimmer like sunshine throughout, and the complex harmonic accompaniment supports this.

The fourth movement, which is set like as a march, is based on another piano work (op. 70). Hindemith has expanded this material to essentially ‘show off’ every instrument of the orchestra. In a strong ABA structure, this movement utilises Weber’s melodic material fully. Although in a strict march at the beginning, the fourth movement becomes whimsical in places, with the instruments really milking Weber’s luscious melodies.

Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, is a powerful work which highlights not only Weber’s wonderful melodies, but Hindemith’s keen eye for orchestration and the development of small kernels of music. A fantastic addition to our list! Join me soon for Day ‘I’ of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:


Antonín Dvořák ‘In Nature’s Realm’: Bohemian Luminosity

Classical music fans – welcome (or welcome back!) to my October Alphabet Challenge. This challenge is great for a number of reasons, with one of them being able to look into composers I really enjoy the music of. Today’s offering for Day ‘D’, is exploring Antonín Dvořák’s concert overture, In Nature’s Realm. An exciting late-Romantic work, which I am certain you will all enjoy!

Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841 in a town called Nelahozeves, which is near Prague, Czech Republic. Dvořák was the first child of fourteen, although many of these children did not live past infancy (with eight surviving). During his upbringing, Dvořák was surrounded by Christian faith and Bohemian heritage, which is something that resonated within his music. When starting infant school in 1847, Dvořák began learning the violin, and even at this tender young age, showed a real talent and skill for music. After getting his head around music theory and violin performance, Dvořák composed his first work in 1855, which was a polka dance in C major. Assuming that he wanted to be fully immersed in classical music, Dvořák was also tutored in German language, which aided his studies. Further to violin, the young composer also began learning organ and piano from his German language teacher, Anton Liehmann.

After leaving to move to Prague in 1857, Dvořák  entered the city’s prestigious Organ School, where he studied organ performance with Joseph Foerster (Josef Bhuslav Foerster’s brother). Throughout his music education, Dvořák was always heavily involved in music bands and orchestras, which gave him ways to communicate with other musicians, as well as further his own technique. Dvořák furthered his own musical career by setting up ensembles and composing a range of different works, including string quartets/quintets, orchestral works such as symphonies and concert overtures, and chamber music.

Many of Dvořák’s works were directly inspired by Moravian, Czech and Slavic traditions. With many composers around this time, Dvořák took much inspiration from folk dance forms, such as the Polish mazurka and polonaise and the Ukrainian dumka. The most obvious of his works that resonate these themes is his sixteen Slavonic Dances, which propelled him into fame. It has been said that Dvořák’s style was based on classical models, and that he admired past composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Due to this, many of his works abide by classical models (for instance the four-movement symphony in a particular order). However, Dvořák played a key role in the development of the symphonic poem. Today, Dvořák is largely remembered for his symphonies (in particular the ninth – From the New World), as well his other orchestral works, such as In Nature’s Realm and Slavonic Dances. As previously mentioned, Dvořák was a ‘jack of all trades’, and his large collection of works proves this.

During the last few years of his life, Dvořák moved back to Prague, after travelling the world, and subsequently died on 1st May, 1904. The five weeks before his passing, Dvořák had begun an abundance of new compositions, and sadly these were left unfinished. In Nature’s Realm, was composed in the later part of Dvořák’s life, in 1891, and is part of a concert overture trilogy. Referred to as “Nature, Life and Love”, this set of three overtures each outline one of these themes. Quite obviously In Nature’s Realm is referring to the first part “Nature.” The other two parts of this trilogy are the Carnival Overture (“Life”) and Othello (“Love”).

In Nature’s Realm was composed between March 31st and July 8th 1891, and the first performance was given the following April in Prague. The trio is connected by themes that represent nature, and to begin with they were going to be published together, until Dvořák changed his mind at the last minute. In Nature’s Realm has been described as a landscape painting, due to its richness in tone, colour and timbre throughout. It is also seen as a somewhat self-portrait of Dvořák’s home town, Vysoká, where he composed in a forest with peace and quiet, and the only noises that disturbed him were the natural sounds outside his window.

In terms of structure, In Nature’s Realm, is broadly in sonata form and begins with an evocative, soft introduction from the basses. The nature motif, in its simplest form, is then sounded by the strings, with woodwinds, such as the flute and oboe, reflecting some sort of bird-song above. These ‘voices of nature’, as they can be described, are representative of the whole work, and then within the other two concert overtures. The main theme, heard slightly later on, is resonant of Moravian yodelling, and this is exhibited with the theme being passed through different instruments and registers. The work uses the call and response technique many times, which emphasises just how important and central the theme of nature really is.

The development section has different atmosphere from the previous light and carefree sections. Again, the nature motif takes centre stage, however it is now layered over complex harmonies and very clever contrapuntal lines, which reflects Dvořák’s homage to J. S. Bach. The recapitulation is similar to the opening, however there is a growth in intensity, which resolves into a much more tranquil coda section. The work can thus be seen as a circle, with it starting and ending the same way. In Nature’s Realm is not often in concert programmes today, however, this does not detract from its beauty, sonority and rich musical writing. The work resembles a microcosm of nature, and its wonders are unlocked upon listening to this wonderfully serene work.

I have waited a while to share with you a work by Dvořák, and I am now very happy this has happened. To me, a composer who is celebrated for only a few works, when actually his catalogue of music is not only large, but full of musical gems such as In Nature’s Realm. Join me tomorrow for Day ‘E’ of my October Alphabet Challenge – you won’t want to miss this one!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Max Bruch ‘Scottish Fantasy’: “Lamenting the Glorious Times of Old”

Dearest classical music fans, thank you for your continued support and consistent views it has put classicalexburns on the map after a recent ranking of 5th ‘Best Music Blog’ by ScoreBig! After nearly a month with no internet in my new house, it has finally been installed and I am happy to be blogging once more. Today’s blog is going to be delving into the sound world of German Romantic composer, Max Bruch and his work for solo violin and orchestra – Scottish Fantasy. I am sure you will enjoy this work as much as I do, so sit back, relax and join me on this new journey!

Max Bruch was born on January 6th 1838 in Cologne. He received early musical training by pianist and composer, Ferdinand Hiller. Unlike quite a large proportion of classical musicians, Bruch’s family were very supportive of his music studies, and were often pushing him to take it one step further in the education ladder. Perhaps due to this, Bruch’s compositional output is large and covers many different genres including sacred and secular settings of songs pslams and motets, violin sonatas, piano works, orchestral works and chamber music for strings.

Bruch married singer Clara Tuczek in 1881, and in 1882 they had their daughter, Margaretha. Due to his long and fruitful career, Bruch held many prestigious musical posts all across Germany and the United Kingdom. Starting in Cologne and moving around Mannheim, Koblenz, Sonderhausen, Berlin, Bonn and Liverpool. Bruch died peacefully from old age in his house in Berlin in 1920, a year after his wife died, to which Bruch was buried next to her. Their daughter later carved Music is the Language of God’ on their gravestone.

As well as a composer, Bruch was also a conductor and pedagogue, and during his lifetime he was perhaps most well-known for his choral music and opera conducting. Saying this, however, his violin concerto in G minor overshadowed many of his efforts and has now become a standard in violin repertoire (due to it being heavily influenced by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor). For his second violin concerto in 1878, Bruch took inspiration from the violin playing of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Similarly, for Scottish Fantasy, Bruch also took inspiration from Sarasate, with the work being dedicated to him. Although entitled a ‘Fantasy’, Scottish Fantasy  was originally claimed as a concerto. This misleading title alludes to semi-structured miniatures, rather than the fairly hefty four-movement work that it is, with many parts reflecting that of a symphony or indeed a concerto. However, one could speculate that this was down to Bruch not wanting to be completely constrained by structures and forms that come with larger-scale works. Furthermore, the score was initially published with the title (translated for this purpose) as: Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies. Long, right? However, researchers have highlighted that the mention of the harp was significant, as it connotes the Romantic association with ballads that are related to the folk music of the British Isles.

The premiere of Scottish Fantasy, was in Liverpool, UK, on February 22nd 1881, with Bruch conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, with violinist Joseph Joachim playing the solo part. However, Bruch was unhappy with Joachim’s performance of his work, and he said that he had ‘ruined the work.’ From there on, Sarasate began playing the solo part, which pleased Bruch a lot more.

As alluded to in the title, the four movements of this work are built on Scottish folk melodies. Below are the movements and the folk melodies they take inspiration from:

  1. Introduction; Grave, Adagio Cantabile – Through the Wood Laddie
  2. Scherzo; Allegro – The Dusty Miller 
  3. Andante sostenuto – I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie 
  4. Finale; Allegro guerriero – Hey Tuttie Tatie, Scots Wha Hae

The first movement was described after the premiere by an associate of Bruch as depicting the image of ‘an old bard who is contemplating a ruined castle and lamenting the glorious times of old.’ The slow introduction is atmospheric and based around Eb minor. The solemn funeral-like sustained chords that start the piece set the scene for the violin to enter very gently around 12 bars in. The richness of the solo melody is built up through pauses, call and response from the soloist and orchestra, and the use of double stopping and other violin techniques. The introduction gradually leads us into a brighter and major-dominated section of the movement. The first movement stays the same tempo throughout, with the focus being melodic development. The rich development that comes from this movement is resonated throughout the rest of the work, but I must say, this movement is probably my favourite!

The second, much livelier movement, based on The Dusty Miller, picks the pace up and reveals an interesting relationship between the violin and the orchestra. With the driving force of the orchestra, the violin often interrupts with a delicate, heavily ornamented sequence of notes, before the orchestra enter again. The open chords that are played by the basses are resonant of that of a bagpipe, which ties in with the pertinent Scottish theme.

The tempo slows once more to reminisce the first movement’s melodic framework. This then provides a segue into the third movement, which very much contrasts the second. Throughout the third movement you can certainly hear how Bruch has intertwined ideas from the first movement, as well as utilising the folk song I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie. Bruch’s use of harmony in this movement is most interesting, as he fluctuates between major and minor, reflecting perhaps some confusion or uncertainty within his life.

The Finale is based on the oldest tune of them all, Scots Wha Hae. Entitled ‘Allegro guerriero’ (‘a warlike allegro’), this movement highlights the virtuosic soloist, with a march-like accompaniment from the orchestra. From fast passages and vigorous triple stops from the soloist, the movement also reflects the atmosphere from the first movement, with slow, rich sequences that lead into a final burst of triumph for Scots Wha Hae. 

Scottish Fantasy gives us a snap shot of where Romanticism was heading in the late 1800s, with Bruch’s extensive use of Scottish folk songs a reflection of past songs set by composers such as Haydn and Mendelssohn. With both delicate and vivacious writing for the soloist, this set of four movements offer many different emotions, atmospheres and interpretations of folk song. Known as a staple work in Bruch’s catalogue, Scottish Fantasy keeps being performed and recorded for many to hear. I for one love this work, and I hope you do too!

On Saturday 11th November, Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing this work at Victoria Hall with violinist Sarah Thornett – make sure you go along so you can hear this wonderful work live!

Happy reading!

Recommended Recording:

Gioachino Rossini ‘William Tell Overture’: Galloping to Success!

The time has come where I have completed all of my work for my Masters degree, which means only one thing – more blogs! From now on there shall be a much more regular posting of blogs. It has taken me a while to choose the right work to blog about after I finish my degree, and I have ended up selecting the iconic overture from Rossini’s opera William Tell. Enjoy!

Born in February 1792 into a family of musicians in Pesaro, Italy, Rossini began to learn the piano from around age 8. Rossini became a multi-instrumentalist at a young age, being competent at piano, cello and horn by his late teens. Rossini is most well-known for his operas, and he wrote his first when he was fourteen years old, however, this was not staged until he was twenty, making it his sixth staged opera. Whilst studying at the Conservatorio di Bologna, Rossini changed from being a cello student, to a much freer composition course. His first opera debut was at age eighteen with La cambiale di matrimonio, which gave him the platform he needed to keep writing and staging operas.

Some of Rossini’s best-known and loved operas include:

  • Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
  • La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
  • L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers)
  • Otello
  • Tancredi
  • La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
  • Guillaume Tell (William Tell)

William Tell was originally a drama written by Friedrich Schiller in 1804. The play centers around Swiss marksman William Tell, and shows the Swiss struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire in the early fourteenth-century. Rossini wrote a four-part opera with the same name, which premiered at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris on 3rd August 1829. However, after three performances one of the four acts was cut due to the sheer length of the opera (which totaled to about four hours!). As well as this, the casting requirements, set and musical demands has meant that this opera has not been staged in full many times since its conception.

The overture is perhaps the most well-known part of the opera, with the last section being the most famous. The overture is split into four sections, which all lead into each other with no breaks. The sections are as follows:

  • The Prelude (Dawn)
  • The Storm
  • The Ranz des Vaches (Call to the Dairy Cows)
  • The Finale (March of the Swiss Soldiers)

The overture has become a staple in concert repertoire, with the final section appearing in popular media, most notably as the theme tune for The Lone Ranger. Interestingly, the overture did not originate with this opera, in fact a whopping 24 operas before, Rossini composed this overture for one of his earlier operas, Elizabeth, Queen Of England. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, the William Tell Overture does not take its melodies from the opera, but a pre-existing work by Rossini.

Beginning with The Prelude section in E minor/major, a solo cello sings out the initial melody, which is then answered by the cello and bass sections. This slow and very elegant opening section is warm and chorale-like, with the lower strings mixing their low timbres together. A pizzicato section begins and is interrupted by a low rumbling of the timpani (which represents the impending storm). This section evokes nature, dance and serenity, the literal calm before the storm.

The Storm section is in E minor, and is started by the violins and violas who take over from the calm lower strings. The frantic perpetuum mobile-like feel to this section sets the tone for the storm. This is also the first time the whole orchestra are playing in the overture, which shows Rossini’s dramatic dynamic contrasts and his playful melodies. The string motif are accented by short wind interventions. These begin with three notes in the upper winds (piccolo, flute and oboes) which then moves to the lower winds (clarinets and bassoons). There is a noticeable build up to the orchestra entering, with the brass leading the outburst of the storm. There is a call and response between the strings and winds and the brass sections, with fast descending melodies that mimic each other. The adrenaline of this section begins to die away, with the winds playing their three-note motif again. This section ends with a solo flute, signifying the storm subsiding.

The third section, Ranz des Vaches, signifies the calm after the storm. This section has a wonderful stillness to it, and the melodies reflect a pastoral countryside. Modulating the G major, the ‘Call to the Dairy Cows’ features the cor anglais. The cor anglais and flute play alternating phrases and this is meant to represent daybreak. Some of the melodies from this section have been used in popular media, such as Disney’s The Old Mill. This simple section is very effective considering it is sandwiched between two fiery and fast-paced sections.

The Finale, often called the March of the Swiss Soldiers, breaks through the pastoral countryside with a fast galop lead by the trumpets. The Finale alludes to the final act of the opera, where the Swiss are victorious after battle, which liberates their homeland from Austrian repression. The whole orchestra enters with the famous galop motif, which infers galloping horses, or even a hero riding to the rescue. However, in the opera there are no horses. The orchestra have come together for this Finale, and many of the fast-paced motifs are played tutti by the whole ensemble. This section is exciting, frantic and is still incredibly popular today. The Finale was also quoted by Dmitri Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 15.

Although the full opera is seldom seen, the overture is now perhaps one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever composed. A particular favourite for training bands and training musicians, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is a staple in classical music repertoire. I hope you have enjoyed today’s classical music installment – there shall be many more to come at a much more regular pace. If you have any requests for me to write about feel free to comment or get in touch with me – my details are on the home page!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording: