At the end of this month, the film Avengers: Infinity War is hitting theaters, the next installment of the seemingly never-ending Avengers comic book saga. So, if superheroes in film (or TV shows or comic books) aren’t enough for you, this week we’re looking at superheroes in classical music! It’s a heroic show we’re calling “Avengers Assemble!” Check out the playlist below:
- Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), Polonaise In A-Flat Major, Op. 5 “Heroic” – Chopin wrote sixteen Polonaises, and he apparently took the genre very seriously. Like the mazurka, the Polonaise was a Polish triple-meter dance. However, unlike the Mazurka, the Polonaise was a noble, aristocratic dance. Chopin himself felt that the grandeur of his “Heroic” Polonaise was crucial to its performance. The story goes that conductor Charles Hallé found Chopin in tears after a student performed the Heroic Polonaise, but not because the performance was all that moving. Rather, Chopin was distraught because the student took the work too fast, stripping it of its pomp. The “heroic” nickname supposedly came from Chopin’s partner George Sand. Sand felt that the nature of the work mirrored the heroism found in the members of the democratic Revolutions of 1848 that were sweeping all across Europe. The work itself requires great virtuosity, attempted by only the most brave, heroic pianists. And so, the name has stuck.
- Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) – The idea of the artist as a hero who might redeem civilization held considerable appeal for Strauss. Like many artists, he hitched his wagon to Nietzsche’s ideas of the redemptive, superhuman artist in works such as the early tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. This trend continued with the autobiographical “A Hero’s Life.” The program consists of a series of episodes in the life of a “hero,” each fashioned after Strauss himself and labeled with a programmatic title. When the hero Recounts his Works of Peace, Strauss quotes several of his own compositions. A section titled The Hero’s Adversaries features feeble, clucking motives overcome by the hero’s theme. Some have speculated Eduard Hanslick, a formalist-minded critic notoriously hostile to Wagner and Strauss, may be depicted with a motive in strict parallel fifths, played, ironically, on the Wagner-Tuba, an instrument invented to play Wagner’s works.
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 3 In E-flat, “Eroica” – Beethoven’s Eroica (or “Heroic”) symphony kicked off the second period of his compositional style, what’s often referred to as his “Heroic” period. This period is marked by some of Beethoven’s most grand Romantic works, including his Fifth Symphony and his Waldstein sonata. The Eroica Symphony had an interesting genesis. Beethoven originally dedicated the work to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he considered to be a hero of democratic and revolutionary ideals. However, Beethoven later withdrew the dedication, erasing Napoleon’s name from the title page to the symphony. This probably had to do with Napoleon’s quest for power—by 1804, Napoleon had named himself Emperor of France, abandoning his fight for common man. But finances also played a role. At the same time, Beethoven was offered a considerable sum of money from a noble patron, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, to whom Beethoven eventually dedicated the work.
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Samson Et Dalila, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” – Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson Et Dalila concerns the biblical superhero Samson, discussed in the Book Of Judges. Samson was a Nazarite, a person who gains strength by worshipping God, abstaining from alcohol, and never cutting his hair. As an Israelite, Samson helped fight the Philistines—and also achieved some superhuman feats like killing a lion with his bare hands and slaying one-thousand Philistines by using just the jawbone of a donkey. Saint-Saens’s opera deals mostly with his downfall at the hands of a woman named Delilah. Delilah conspires with the Philistines to get Samson to reveal the source of his strength. She woos him with this aria, and he reveals that his strength comes from his long locks. Delilah tells the secret to the Philistines, who shave his head, blind him, and ultimately kill him. But not before Samson summons his strength once more to destroy the temple and all the Philistines within.
- Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), Iphigenie In Aulis – Historians often point to Greek epics and hero myths as the cultural origin of superheroes. One of the most famous was Achilles, the Trojan War hero from Homer’s Iliad. Achilles was nearly immortal, having been dipped as a child in the mythical river Styx by his sea spirit mother. This gave him superhuman agility that enabled him to defeat Troy’s most powerful warrior, Prince Hector, and trigger the events that led to the end of the Trojan War. Among those events unfortunately was the death of Achilles, who was mortally wounded by an arrow to the heel, the one spot where the waters of the Styx had not covered him. Achilles as an operatic hero appears in the first of Gluck’s three operas that center around Iphigénie, the daughter of Agamemnon, King of the Mycenaeans. In the first opera, Iphigénie in Aulis, Achilles appears as the lover of Iphigenie and a close friend of Agamemnon, for whom he is fighting the Trojan War.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Paul Bunyan – The myth of Paul Bunyan began as a collection of stories by lumberjacks that were mixed together by journalist James MacGillivray for the Oscoda Press and again for the Detroit News. The myth was popularized by William B. Laughead on behalf of the Red River Lumber Company. Benjamin Britten’s librettist, W.H. Auden, saw the story of Bunyan as that of a “Struggle between Man and Nature.” The prologue describes America as a land with virgin forest waiting to be tamed, and the giant Paul Bunyan is just the man for the job. Curiously, the character is never seen, nor does he sing in this operetta. He is simply a voice off-stage, representing the industrial spirit of 19th-century America. However, some critics have blamed this disembodied voice for preventing the work from flourishing as well as Britten’s other operas.
- Michael Daugherty (b. 1954), Metropolis Symphony – Michael Daugherty may be the closest thing classical music has to an Andy Warhol or a Roy Lichtenstein. His music draws from the iconic vocabulary of American pop culture in a spirit that is partially tongue-in-cheek, but shot through with genuine affection. Just like his choice of subjects, his musical language freely mixes popular and classical influences. His unique brand of musical Pop Art has included an opera on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a piano concerto à la Liberace, and a bassoon concerto performed by an Elvis impersonator. In Metropolis Symphony, Daugherty takes on one of the most super-heroic of American icons: Superman himself. The second movement, for instance, is titled “Krypton,” named for Superman’s lost home planet where he gained his superhuman abilities.
- Danny Elfman (b. 1953), Batman: The Batman Theme – Superheroes on the big screen have become big business in Hollywood, with Wonder Woman, Black Panther, the Avengers, and many more dominating the box office. Superhero films have been around a while, though: there were the Christopher Reeve Superman films from the 1970s (with their great John Williams score) and the Batman films from the 1990s, which kicked off the modern superhero craze. The first Batman film came in 1989, directed by the visually-striking director Tim Burton. Burton had a working relationship with composer and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman dating back to their first film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. He got Elfman to write the score for Batman. The studio also hired Prince to write original songs for the film. Both the score and the soundtrack were big hits. Prince’s Batman album hit number 1 on the Billboard charts, and Elfman’s main theme was re-used in the Batman animated series.