This week, we waited in the wings and behind the scenes with music written to be performed off-stage. From hunting horns on mountain tops to string quartets in helicoptors, here are nine of our favorite pieces.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Don Giovanni: Finale Evil-doers must pay for their sins. That’s the moral of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni—whose full title is Il Dissoluto Punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni, or in English The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni. Based on the Spanish legend of womanizer Don Juan, our title character seemingly gets away with everything. He attempts to seduce every woman on stage without a thought of the repercussions. He lies and drinks, and even commits murder—killing the Commendatore, In the final act, after an evening of food and song, Don Giovanni receives his comeuppance when the ghost of the man he killed returns. In a dramatic supernatural moment, the statue of the Commendatore comes to life, joins the Don at supper, and then swiftly drags him into hell. The scene includes one of the most famous instances of off-stage chorus in opera. As Don Giovanni descends, from below a chorus of the damned sings “There is worse yet to come” and the Don disappears with one final scream.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) An Alpine Symphony: III. Der Anstieg (The Ascent) Strauss’s epic tone poem An Alpine Symphony—the last he ever wrote—took its inspiration from a real-life event in the composer’s life. In his youth, Strauss partook in an especially rough mountain-climbing expedition, where the party lost their way, and were pummeled by a nasty thunderstorm during the descent. These events, from the ascent to the thunderstorm, are all musically depicted in the work. We just listened to a moment during the party’s ascent of the mountain, in which they hear a hunting party in the wilderness. Strauss uses off-stage brass to give distance to the moment, and better characterize the majesty of the mountain climb. After reading the novel by Friedrich Nietzche, Strauss originally intended to call this work The Antichrist, but abandoned its philosophical overtones for something more natural.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No. 2 Despite all odds, two children discovered by shepherds grow up to be lovers. This is the basic premise of the story of Daphnis and Chlöe as first brought to us by the classical Greek writer and romancer Longus. Maurice Ravel described the music he wrote for a ballet setting of this piece as a “choreographed symphony.” It is his longest, but perhaps most enduring piece of music. One fascinating feature of the orchestration is the use of a choir that doesn’t sing actual words, but amorphous sounds. Sergei Diaghilev took the ballet on tour to London, but without the choir. This omission caused Ravel to send angry letters to the London Times. Curiously though, Ravel left the wordless choir out of both of his orchestral suites of Daphnes and Chlöe, though these days they are often included in performances as offstage ensembles, adding to the mysterious quality of the natural setting Ravel’s symphonic masterpiece portrays.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Symphony No. 2 in c 'Resurrection' - final movement Gustav Mahler’s day job was as a conductor, so when he composed, he had to do it during the summer, between the typical opera or symphony performance seasons. His second symphony, the most popular of his works during his life until he finished his 8th symphony, took him six summers to complete. Written on the theme of resurrection and his life-long belief in the beauty of the after-life, the forces required for this piece are of biblical proportions: a full orchestra, organ, soprano and alto soloists, mixed chorus, bell tower, and an off-stage brass choir, which we heard in the opening of our excerpt. Mahler originally expected this work to also include a printed narrative that audience members would read as they listened to the work, but ultimately withdrew the idea completely. He indicated that the Finale was a “fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.” He would later transfer this theme into another of his most popular works, Das Lied von der Erde.
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise Orkney, the beautiful and green group of islands just north of the Scottish mainland, was the hometown composer the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of Britain’s most popular contemporary composers. It was in the Orkney capital of Kirkwall where Davies founded the St. Magnus Festival, an arts festival where Davies has premiered many of his works. This work, the 12-minute orchestral piece An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise, was premiered instead in Boston, where it was commissioned by John Williams and the Boston Pops. Depicting the music at a Scottish wedding festivity, it remains one of Davies’s most popular pieces. It’s likely because at the very end, it includes a solo for Great Highland Bagpipes, one of the only classical works to feature this instrument. Davies himself described the bagpipes entrance as symbolic of the rising sun, and indicated that the performer should process with the pipes from the back of the hall to the podium.
Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612) Sacre Symphoniae: Sonata Pian' e Forte St. Mark's Basilica in Venice has a long tradition of fantastic music. Former musical directors include such names as Claudio Monteverdi, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, and Baldassare Galuppi. Giovanni Gabrieli never served as the maestro di cappelli at St. Mark’s, but he did serve as their principal organist and composer during the turn of the 17th century, taking over the position from his uncle Andrea. Not only did Giovanni Gabrieli become known for being among the first to specify specific instruments in his works and to include dynamic markings, but he also wrote music that fully took advantage of the interior space of St. Mark’s Basilica. The basilica had two choir lofts that faced each other, so Gabrieli used spatially separated choirs and brass ensembles, creating a Baroque version of stereophonic sound. This style has been commonly referred to as the Venetian polychoral style, antiphonal music, or cori spezzati.
Tan Dun (1957)Internet Symphony (Eroica) As far as the traditional four-movement symphony goes, Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony may be one of the shortest, clocking in at about four minutes. What is more notable about the composition however is the unique circumstance under which it was commissioned and recorded. Google asked Tan Dun to compose the Internet Symphony as part of the Youtube Symphony Orchestra Project, creating the first classical music ensemble that auditioned and rehearsed exclusively online. Over three thousand musicians auditioned, and the project culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009 which was webcasted on Youtube. The piece itself also has some interesting features. Tan Dun repurposed the main theme from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony into the work and also wrote parts for unique percussion instruments including disc brakes from automobiles and hubcap rims.
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) Gruppen (Groups) Karlheinz Stockhausen was a member of a group of composers known as the Darmstadt School. The composers of the Darmstadt School claimed direct stylistic descendance from the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, who used serial techniques to determine the pitches they would put to paper. The Darmstadt School took this approach even further, using serialism to also determine rhythm, dynamics, articulations, durations, and tempo. This work Gruppen, for three orchestras and three conductors, has many levels of predetermined organization. The exact organization of the tempo, for instance, was inspired by the contours of a mountain range in Switzerland. Stockhausen has also occasionally written pieces to be performed under unique circumstances, for instance his 1971 piece Sternklang calls for outside performers projected over loudspeakers from disparate locations, and his Helicopter Quartet from 1995 has members of a string quartet perform from four separate helicopters, incorporating the sound of the rotating blades so they are considered instruments in their own right.
Ian Anderson (b. 1947) Minstrel in the Gallery “The Minstrel in the Gallery” is English progressive rock band Jethro Tull’s eighth album, and the first one to be recorded outside of the UK. This was a necessity as the band was in tax exile residing in Monaco at the time. Frontman Ian Anderson commissioned a special mobile studio which essentially allowed the band to record anywhere they wanted. Named the Maison Rogue Mobile Studio in 1975, the studio would be used to record many Jethro Tull albums during the 70’s. The recording space in the Prince of Wales Hotel where the mobile studio was shipped and set up had a small balcony in the room which reminded Anderson of minstrel galleries in medieval castles, and this is what inspired the album and its title track. Minstrels and performance, muses and great halls would be a continued theme for the rest of the album.