This week, we hit the hay and traveled to Dreamland! Below, find nine selections from our show featuring classical music inspired by dreams.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14: Dreams and Passions Hector Berlioz’s most famous work, Symphonie Fantastique, was truly unprecedented. Never before was the orchestra wielded to depict such unrestrained passion, and never before had a purely instrumental composition been written to describe such a complex scenario, making Symphonie Fantastique the first true programmatic work. Romantic obsession is at the core of every movement in this work, as each piece follows the psychological state of a tortured artist as he broods, daydreams, and languishes over an unrequited love, culminating in an opium-induced nightmare where the artist witnesses his own execution. In this first movement, titled “Dreams and Passions” we hear the introduction of what Berlioz called the “idee fixe,” which is basically a precursor to the German leitmotif, and represents the artist’s love for a woman he considers the ideal of perfection. Here it is again. (BGR0012) This idee fixe was based on Berlioz’s own obsessive love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who he first saw play Ophelia in a production of Hamlet.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 One of Edward Elgar’s greatest works is the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. It was composed for the Birmingham Triennial Festival of 1900 by Catholic poet John Henry Newman, and is about a soul who journeys from death to purgatory (festive stuff). The poem meant a great deal to Elgar and to his wife Alice, because early in their relationship the two had read the poem together, marking some of their favorite passages. When his wife died in 1920, Elgar’s spirits seemed to fade as well, and his musical output dropped sharply. After Elgar’s own death in 1934, he was buried next to Alice at St Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern. In answer to our bonus question, Elgar is also commemorated by a stained glass window in Worchester Cathedral the subject of which is also based on The Dream of Gerontius.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Nacht und Träume, D. 827 Schubert’s song “Nacht Und Träume,” (“Night And Dreams”) is one of his most famous standalone songs, with a dreamy melody that floats over the undulating accompaniment as it shifts to faraway tonal centers. It was a favorite piece of 20th-century writer Samuel Beckett, and it was central to one of the last plays that he wrote in 1983. It was a television play also named Nacht Und Träume, and when it premiered in Germany, over 2 million people watched it. Beckett’s Nacht Und Träume was a wordless play, and mostly a pantomime. It presents a man alone in a dark room. When he falls asleep, an image of his dreamt self is shown and later comforted by a pair of disembodied hands. The only sound heard in the entire play is the wordless hum of the final seven bars from Schubert’s “Nacht Und Träume.”
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Liebestraume No. 3 in A-flat Franz Liszt’s three Liebesträume, or “Dreams Of Love,” are perfect examples of the elegant romanticism the composer was capable of evoking within his lovely melodies and complex piano textures. These three dreamy piano showcases were actually piano transcriptions of songs he had written a few years earlier. Each of the three songs were about a different kind of love: religious love, lust, and unconditional love. This third Liebestraum, in A-flat major, has become the most famous of the set. It was even a favorite piece of Margo Channing, the aging actress at the center of the 1950 film drama All About Eve. In the film, Margo (played by Bette Davis), after having a few too many martinis, sits beside the piano player and asks him to play “Liebestraum.” The pianist indulges Margo’s request, despite having already played her favorite piece four times in a row.
Hans Zimmer (b.1957) Inception In several ways, Hans Zimmer’s career represents a new norm for Hollywood blockbuster film music. Zimmer is of international background—born in Germany, raised in England, and composing in Hollywood. While his scores all bear his personal style, Zimmer is as much a music producer as a composer, heading his own scoring company and relying upon intensely collaborative working methods. These have been controversial in some quarters—his score for The Dark Knight was briefly removed for consideration for the Oscars due to having too many composers. Zimmer’s score for “Inception,” a science-fiction thriller also shows Zimmer’s absorption and synthesis of minimalism, techno-pop, and classical style. In “Inception,” a group of mercenary white-collar spies enter their victims’ dreams while they sleep, stealing (and sometimes planting) secrets.
John Adams (b.1947) Violin Concerto: II. Chaconne - "Body through which the dream flows" Adam’s Violin Concerto was premiered in 1993 by Jorja FLEE-zonis, who the piece was written for. The concerto is the final work in a series of instrumental compositions Adams worked on throughout the early 90’s, and contains some of the most complex counterpoint the composer ever wrote. The second movement is a rare case of Adams using an early musical form, the chaconne. The subtitle “Body through which the dream flows” was taken from a poem by Robert Haas. Adams found the phrase highly evocative, and describes how it relates to the chaconne in his own words “The idea was the orchestra, particularly the repeated chaconne line, was a body, a palpable entity, and the violin was a dream that flows through that tissue.”
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) Three Dream Portraits: II. Dream Variations Growing up during a time when Black musicians were excluded from the classical music mainstream, Margaret Bonds became a leading proponent for Black musicians and artists during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in Chicago where she was born and eventually in New York where she lived for three decades. Educated in piano and vocal composition, she achieved recognition when she was a featured soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, making her one of the first black classical musicians to perform with an internationally-renowned ensemble. Her Three Dream Portraits are settings of poetry by Langston Hughes, with whom she maintained a life-long friendship. While attending Northwestern (Go Wildcats) in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, she encountered Hughes’ poetry at the Evanston Public Library, and later described how his poetry helped her cope with the discriminatory culture she endured.
Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) Reverie The term “Rêverie” was used by Romantic poets to describe a daydream or dream state. It was also used by composers such as Giovanni Bottesini, although at six feet tall and 25 pounds of carved wood, the double bass is perhaps more a dream boat than a dream maker. Bottesini convinced audiences of the double bass’ expressive qualities as a solo instrument, (before 1800 it was mostly relegated to the dark, back row of the orchestra) and he was able to do this through his virtuosity on the instrument. Bottesini wowed audiences with his lightning-fast ability to move up and down the fingerboard of the bass, as well as his use of harmonics, horn-like tones that allowed the instrument to sound in the treble range when played by lightly touching fundamental pitches on the string. Beyond show pieces like his reverie and tarantella, Bottesini composed serious music for the bass, including several concerti that require some serious muscle.
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) Day Dreamin The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin began her mainstream success in the early 1960s after signing with the Columbia record label. At that time, Columbia was considered a bit old fashioned, known for the big pop singers of the golden age like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, not for the up-and-coming genres of rock and roll and R&B. Under Columbia’s control, Franklin’s true talent was stifled. She had a few minor hits, like “One Step Ahead” and “Runnin out of Fools.” But Franklin was a soul singer, not keen on easy-listening. In 1967, she moved over to Atlantic Records, a label that promoted artists like Ray Charles and Solomon Burke, and it was there that Aretha Franklin’s career really began to flourish. By the time she released “Day Dreamin” as a single in 1972 she had already recorded two top-selling albums, won a grammy and was set to win another later that year.