This week, we’re forging ahead with some truly metallic music. Get ready to put your irons in the fire for a show all about metal in music that we're calling “Heavy Metal.” I hope you have nerves of steel!
Check out our metallic playlist below:
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), 1812 Overture – The excitement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture makes it easy to forget the human cost of the event it commemorates. In 1812, the French and Russians fought at The Battle of Borodino—the Russian army’s desperate attempt to halt Napoleon’s advance into Russia. Contrary to Tchaikovsky’s musical narrative, nobody really won, and the battle ended in crippling casualties and retreat on both sides. It is hardly surprising that the triumphant depiction of the battle in Tchaikovsky’s work has appealed to more people’s taste. Part of the work’s appeal is the unique, metallic addition to the battery of percussion: actual cannons. Tchaikovsky had written in sixteen cannon shots into the score to represent the Battle of Borodino. It takes a programmed electrical switch—or at least a highly-trained milita—to coordinate the cannon fire with the music. Naturally, Tchaikovsky intended any performance of this work with cannon fire to take place outdoors.
- Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), Der Freischütz: Act II, "The Wolf's Glen Scene" – Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, sometimes translated as “The Freeshooter” or “The Marksman,” was one of the most important German-language operas in the early 19th century. While most Italian operas around this time dealt with real-life situations, German operas tended to focus on myth and magic, and Der Freischütz was no exception. The story is about Max, an out of luck marksman, who must win a shooting competition in order to win the hand of the beautiful Agathe. To help him win the contest, he is convinced by the trickster Caspar to cast seven magical bullets under the cover of night. This deed takes place at a makeshift forge in the famous and spooky “Wolf’s Glen Scene.” The only problem is the seventh bullet, the one Max ends up using in the competition, is controlled by the evil Samiel, a spoken role that is always accompanied by ominous, dissonant diminished 7th chords.
- Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, “If I Only Had A Heart” (The Tin Man's song from The Wizard Of Oz) – The Tin Man, originally the “Tin Woodman” in L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was a character dismembered by an enchanted axe and rebuilt entirely out of the metal tin (minus his heart). In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the character is portrayed by Jack Haley, who sings this Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg lament for his lost heart. However, Haley was only a replacement. The original Tin Man was actually Buddy Ebsen (a.k.a. Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies). Ebsen was a well-known dancer and singer at the time. But he was dismissed ten days into the production due to medical complications from the metal. The original tin-colored makeup was aluminum dust sprinkled onto Ebsen’s white face paint. The aluminum dust had gotten into Ebsen’s lungs, sending him to the hospital for several days. The role was recast, and the makeup was reformulated.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Il Trovatore: Coro di Zingari: "Vedi! le fosche" ("Anvil Chorus") – The piece we just heard is widely known as the “Anvil Chorus,” but in his opera Il Trovatore, Verdi simply titled it the Coro di zingari, or “Gypsy chorus.” It depicts Spanish Gypsies hammering on their anvils at dawn while singing the praises of wine, steady work, and women. Though it is possible that anvils were used in musical ensembles as early as the 16th century, Verdi's opera helped fix them as a standard addition to the auxiliary percussion of professional symphony orchestras. Just over a decade after Il Trovatore, Wagner called for 18 specially tuned anvils to depict the underworld dwarves in an orchestral interlude of his Ring Cycle. Since then, anvils have generally been used to represent industry and hard work in orchestral music. Because of their weight, however, many orchestras prefer to use a specially mounted steel bar that provides the same tonal quality as an anvil without the hassle of 75 to 500 pounds.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), Le Pas D'Acier ("The Steel Step") – Prokofiev’s ballet Le Pas D’Acier was one of the final ballets commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the famed Ballet Russes dance company in Paris, before Diaghilev died in 1929. The title translates to “The Steel Step” or “The Dance Of Steel,” referring to the great industrial strides the Soviets had taken after the 1917 revolution. The ballet featured railroads, foundries, and steelworkers bearing large hammers, praising the Soviet Union’s emergence as an industrial superpower in the wake of political upheaval. However, after a successful premiere in Paris, Prokofiev had trouble getting the ballet staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, despite its pro-Soviet subject. Prokofiev had spent the revolution living and working abroad, so the Soviets viewed him as a defector, not a countryman. Therefore, they felt he had no authority to write a ballet about Soviet industrial progress since he wasn’t there to witness it.
- Reinhold Glière (1875–1957), The Bronze Horseman – When Alexander Pushkin first wrote the poem The Bronze Horseman, inspired by the bronze statue of Peter The Great in St. Petersburg, the poem was censored by the Russian government, who took issue with Pushkin’s previous political writings. Not until after Pushkin’s death in 1837 (he was shot in a duel) was the poem published in its entirety. It was massively successful and remained influential toward various art forms through the Soviet era. Reinhold Gliére based a ballet and orchestral suite on the poem in 1948, and though the plot of the Bronze Horseman is ultimately tragic, Gliére manipulated the story to glorify the city of St. Petersburg. The Soviet Union even adopted a melody from the ballet called the “Hymn to the Great City” as the official anthem of St. Petersburg. And though the lyrics have changed through the years, Gliére’s music is still used today for St. Petersburg’s national song.
- Michael Daugherty (b. 1954), Motown Metal – Michael Daugherty’s Motown Metal, as the title implies, was written in praise of the city of Detroit. It’s not the only piece he wrote about Detroit either, since he served as the composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s and has served on the composition faculty at the nearby University of Michigan for over 25 years. The work borrows from the 1960s “Motown Sound,” Detroit’s most popular musical export. But it was also inspired by the industrial clanging of Detroit’s other major export, the automobile. To achieve this industrial sound, Daughtery wrote the entire work for metallic instruments. This includes brass instruments (horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba) as well as metallic percussion instruments (vibraphone, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbal, gong, anvil, and brake drum).
- Joan Tower (b. 1938), Copperwave – Given her background, it’s no surprise that American composer Joan Tower would write a piece of music that was inspired by the metal copper. Though she was born in New York, Tower group up in South America where her father was a mining engineer at a copper mine. Years later, after she had returned to the United States, Tower received a commission from the Juilliard School of Music in 2006 to write a piece for the American Brass Quintet. She used the fact that all the instruments of the quintet were made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, as inspiration for Copperwave, linking her adult life as a composer with her experiences with copper in childhood. To further the link to her past, Tower also included Latin rhythms that move in what she described as “musical waves” through the music.
- Apocalyptica plays Metallica – No one is certain who coined the phrase “heavy metal”. The music grew out of hard rock in the late 1960s. but over the last 50 years metal (as it’s most often called) has diversified into dozens of different subgenres, all tied together with the common threads of aggression, distortion, amplification, and virtuosity. Some of these ideas—like playing loud, aggressive, and virtuosic music—are also shared by many classical musicians. Musicologist Robert Walser points out that many of the most important metal guitarists also studied classical music in their youth. But this shared interest in metal and classical doesn’t just apply to guitarists. The cello ensemble Apocalyptica formed in Finland in 1993 by three classically-trained cellists who all loved the band Metallica. Since then, they've grown to create their own brand of symphonic metal without guitars. While their instruments are made of wood, their music is still pure metal.