Classical music has been around for centuries and it keeps its relevance even today. We all listen to pieces from famous composers like Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt, but do we know what led them to write their most famous pieces?
In this article, we will examine the stories behind five classical music pieces and learn the stories behind the composition of these timeless classics.
1. “Moonlight Sonata” (1801), by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is one of the most well-known classical music pieces on Earth. Sonatas of the two earlier centuries mostly consisted of a lively first movement, a calmer second movement, and a striking last movement. “Moonlight Sonata” was unique, in that it had a dreamy and melancholic first movement, a more dynamic second movement, and an aggressive third movement.
Beethoven himself described “Moonlight Sonata” as a “sonata in the manner of a fantasia”, meaning the style of the piece is similar to that of a fantasia — which are typically improvised and free in form. Indeed, the left-hand arpeggios of the first movement that make up the main theme of the sonata are a common device for improvisation even in our days.
“Moonlight Sonata” is dedicated to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi who was Beethoven’s student for a short period of time. Beethoven was in love with Giulietta and even expressed his thoughts of proposing to her to his friend Franz Wegeler, but he knew that marrying Giulietta was impossible as she was an aristocrat and he did not have any ranks.
The piece was given the name “Moonlight Sonata” in the 1830s by German poet Ludwig Rellstab who, in his review of the piece, wrote that the first movement reminded him of a boat floating in a lake in the moonlight.
2. “Revolutionary Étude” (1831), Frédéric Chopin
Études of the romantic period distinguish themselves from the études of the previous eras in that the former are fully developed concert pieces and the latter focus on developing the musician's technique. The greatest challenges posed by this piece are the fast-paced scales and arpeggios of the left hand as well as the cross-rhythms of the right hand.
It is thought that ”Revolutionary Étude” was written after the November Uprising against Russia. Chopin left Poland in 1830, and refused to go back as long as it was under Russian reign. After leaving his homeland at the age of 20, he never came back.
Chopin dedicated this piece to his friend Franz Liszt.
3. “Consolations” (1849 - 1850), by Franz Liszt
Liszt’s “Consolations” are a set of six solo piano pieces. The source of the name “Consolations” is thought to be Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem “Une larme, ou Consolation”.
Consolation No. 3, the most popular of the six, resembles Chopin’s nocturnes in terms of style. Some interpret this as Liszt’s way of honoring his friend who passed away in 1849, a year before the publication of the piece.
4. “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” (1903), by Erik Satie
“Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” suite is one of Erik Satie’s most famous works. Although the title suggests the presence of three pieces in the suite, there are seven of them.
One theory about Satie’s reason for composing these pieces is that the entire suite is Satie’s humorous response to Debussy’s criticism about the “form” of his pieces. Another theory is that, as the French word for pear “poire” is also slang for “fool”, Satie intended to mock either Debussy or himself. It is also possible that, because “poire” is another name for a child’s spinning top, Satie named his suite with repetitive themes after a spinning top.
5. “Rite of Spring” (1913), by Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is a ballet and orchestral concert piece written for the Ballet Russes company. “Rite of Spring” depicts a pagan ritual celebrating the coming of spring and tells the story of a young girl chosen as a sacrifice who dances herself to death.
Stravinsky was recruited by Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballet Russes, who was searching for young composers with a fresh and distinct 20th century style to help rearrange ballet music for the company. After his success with the rearrangements of the ballet Les Sylphides, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose music for another ballet. So, Stravinsky wrote music for The Firebird which premiered in 1910 and was met with positive reviews from the audience. Stravinsky soon became a well-known composer thanks to the success of the Firebird and his second ballet Petrushka.
His third ballet, “Rite of Spring” is considered one of the first examples of Modernist music. The piece is very complex in terms of rhythm, with combinations of duple and triple time. The percussion is very powerful to the point where it is described by many to be “barbaric”. There is a lot of dissonance and bitonality, the chords played by the horns are harsh, the ending is abrupt, and the piece as a whole is extremely daring. This, combined with the subject matter of the ballet, received some mixed reviews from the audience.
Some describe the premiere of the ballet as a full-scale riot. The disturbances in the audience started during the introduction and soon grew big enough that it was impossible for the dancers to hear their cues and for the audience to hear the music. Composer Julius Harrison describes “Rite of Spring” as “an abhorrence of everything for which music has stood these many centuries ... all human endeavor and progress are being swept aside to make room for hideous sounds".
Despite the negative criticisms it received, “Rite of Spring” is considered as one of the most influential and innovative pieces of music today.
Now that you know the stories behind these pieces, we hope that you will see classical music in a new light.
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