Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Little Summer Music

Summertime, and the living is easy. It's time to lounge around the pool, celebrate the fourth of July, and enjoy your summer vacation if you're in school. For classical musicians, it's also a good time to remember some of the beautiful music composed for the season. Composers from Beethoven to Samuel Barber have celebrated the beauty of summer in their music, so here's a few highlights.

1. Antonio Vivaldi's Summer Concerto

Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos are some of the most popular and enduring works of classical music. The "Summer" concerto contrasts the season's languid ease with its intense storms. The first movement, for example, begins with long slow notes, then quickly amps itself into an energetic Allegro. The second movement has the soloist holding long notes with the orchestra only occasionally interrupting with bursts of speed, as though Vivaldi's foreshadowing the dramatic last movement, which is a virtuosic presto that's said to represent a summer storm. It's beautiful music, dramatic and powerful, and a good recording can make it feel as if you're hearing it for the first time. This is a piece whose popularity is well deserved, especially since it's the inspiration for the next piece on my list.

2. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

This symphony is so beloved and evocative that Walt Disney chose to animate it in the original Fantasia. The mythological country setting is based on the subtitles Beethoven gave each movement. For example, the first movement is "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside," while the fourth movement is "Thunder and Storm." The sixth symphony is one of the few pieces Beethoven composed that's programmatic--that is, it tells a story or depicts a particular scene or scenes. If the inspiration for the music sounds similar to that of Vivaldi's Summer concerto, that's because it is--Beethoven was inspired by the older work.

3. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream 

I can remember spending hours and hours practicing excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on my viola for orchestra auditions. Despite this severe provocation, I still manage to love the music. I'm sure that if real fairies existed, they would dance to it. It's light and delicate, with a brilliance and wild energy that evoke the best parts of Shakespeare's play. Mendelssohn is less appreciated than he deserves--he's a great genius of classical music.

4. Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Ete

I recently discovered this piece on youtube; it's a song cycle whose title translates as "The Nights of Summer." As a string player, I sometimes miss out on vocal music, so I was very glad to hear these songs for the first time. The songs focus on love, and seem to capture its many stages and moods, from the joyful excitement of the "Villanelle" to the dissonant despair of "On the Lagoons." This music shows a more contemplative side to the fiery composer best known for Symphonie Fantastique. 

5. Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 

This might be one of my favorite pieces of Barber's music, and that's saying something, since he wrote the haunting "Adagio for Strings" and some truly gorgeous string quartets. I first heard it at a small music festival in New York State--the Skaneateles Festival. I actually won free tickets to the show off the radio (how often does that happen?). Knoxville: Summer of 1915 has layered, lyrical music set to a text by James Agee. The music captures the text's nostalgia and its dreamlike depiction of carefree childhood, yet foreshadows the tragic loss of a beloved father. It's deeply poignant, and truly beautiful.

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