As we step into June, many of us are thinking about vacation season. Some composers wrote their best pieces while taking a break from the daily grind. Explore our playlist below for sun-time fun-time themed classical music.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) The Hebrides Overture ('Fingal's Cave'), Op.26 Mendelssohn’s popular concert overture The Hebrides, also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” was originally titled Die Einsame Insel, or, in English, The Lonely Island. This piece, despite the designation “overture,” was intended as a stand-alone concert work. The actual Fingal’s Cave is an extraordinary natural landmark among the set of islands known as the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It’s an uninhabited sea cave that’s distinguished by its large hexagonal columns of basalt and its odd acoustics within. Mendelssohn took a break from his 1829 tour of England and Scotland to visit Fingal’s Cave and was so inspired by the trip that he wrote out the first phrase of the overture on a postcard. He sent the postcard to his sister Fanny, writing, quote “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Symphony No.5: Adagietto 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. Mahler had three summer retreats over the course of his long music career, and many of his major compositional breakthroughs were realised at these summer studios. His first was a one-room hut on the shore of the beautiful mountain lake, Attersee in Austria. The second, which was the compositional birthplace of this selection, his fifth symphony, was a lakeside villa built in the pine forest above the southern shore of the Wörthersee in Carinthia. Mahler’s final summer retreat was a rented apartment in the Tyrol, in the ancient farmhouse of Alt-Schluderbach.
Cole Porter (1891-1964) Anything Goes: Overture Anything Goes is set entirely at sea during the glory days of trans-atlantic travel. The idea for setting a musical on an ocean liner came to producer Vinton Freedley during a time he was living on one in order to avoid debt. The plot of Anything Goes went through many revisions, the original story involved a bomb threat, hijacking, and being shipwrecked on a desert island. However just weeks before the musical was due to open, the SS Morro Castle caught fire off the shore of Long Island, killing 138 passengers and crew. The musical as it stood was now in dubious taste and needed to be rewritten, so Freedley hired the writing team Lindsay and Crouse to write the more light-hearted story of social hijinks and intrigue that is performed today.
Philip Glass (b.1937) Einstein on the Beach: Act 1 Train 1 Einstein on the Beach does not have a plot, per se, but instead presents Albert Einstein as an historical icon, detached from any clear sense of context. Composer Philip Glass refers to this kind of opera as a Portrait Opera that portrays Einstein as a person who changed the world through vision and ideas instead of weapons. The text came from a number of sources including solfege syllables and poems by Christopher Knowles. The theme of traveling dominates two main sections of the opera. The first features trains, which was the metaphor Einstein used to describe his theory of relativity. The last is titled “Spaceship,” and is used as a metaphor for transcendence and escaping nuclear disaster. On Vacation indeed.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Viola Concerto, Op. post., Sz. 120 Bela Bartok spent the early part of his professional career traveling through Hungary collecting folk music, and even as he toured all over the world later in life, the distinctive music that he heard and analyzed in those early days would remain with him. His viola concerto for example, though echoing the style of Hungarian folk melodies, was written while Bartok was on summer vacation in the Adirondack region of New York. Bartok rented a rustic cabin on the historic Saranac Lake to spend his down time delving into the possibilities and limitations of the viola. Sadly, he would pass away from Leukemia only months after starting the concerto, leaving behind incomplete sketches of the work. For that reason, many editions and interpretations of the piece exist, and no recording is exactly the same.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Holiday Diary, Op. 5: I. Morning Bath II. Sailing Benjamin Britten showed an interest in music from a young age, composing a number of works before he reached the age of ten. Formal training began soon after, and by the age of 14 Britten was studying composition with Frank Bridge. Although he would become known primarily as a composer, Britten was also a fantastic pianist; throughout his life he gave solo recitals and accompanied his partner, tenor Peters Piers, on the keyboard. It’s surprising then, that he only composed a few pieces for solo piano during his professional career. Holiday Dairy is one of the few he composed soon after graduating from conservatory, and is a musical memory of a vacation to the North Sea.
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) Fireside Tales, Op. 61 Composer Edward MacDowell is in many ways the father of American classical music. In the late 19th century, he helped establish a pastoral style of American music that was distinct from the continental European style. Late in his life, he wanted to ensure that art and music were supported in America, so he and his wife established an artists’ colony at his home in New Hampshire known as the MacDowell Colony. This retreat was set up as a place for artists to be inspired and complete their work in peace, and many notable people have spent time there. Composers Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson all wrote major works at the MacDowell Colony, as did authors, Spalding Gray, Alice Sebold, and Thorton Wilder.
Albert William Ketèlbey (1875-1959) In a Monastery Garden Albert Ketèlby was one of the most successful conductors in late-Victorian London. He wrote hundreds of compositions which emphasized exaggerated emotionalism, sometimes at the expense of harmonic subtly. His light orchestral pieces are an example of a lost genre known as the “Palm Court Sound” named after the musicians of the Palm Court Theatre Orchestra. Before World War II, many of London’s finest hotels housed sizable orchestras that entertained guests with colorful romantic works that perhaps while lacking novelty, were fashionable, glamorous and easy to please. They often created sentimental mood pictures and evoked exoic travel locations and were also used to accompany silent film. This piece “In a Monastery Garden” is one of the most popular pieces of the genre. Ketelbey’s piano arrangement sold over a million copies in sheet music, an enormous achievement in 1915.
Rivers Cuomo Island in the Sun By the time Weezer released its third album in 2001, they had already established themselves as California’s most popular alternative rock group, with multiple hits and charting numbers throughout the 90s. The Green Album marked a departure from their roots in alt rock for the lighter sound of Power Pop, newly aligning themselves with bands like The Who and The Beatles. Island in the Sun was the second single released in preparation for the album and was not originally planned to be included on the album. However, it quickly became Weezer’s most popular song outside of the United States. The success of Island in the Sun combined with the eccentric personality of Weezer’s frontman, Rivers Cuomo, led to a comparison with the Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys that continues to follow Weezer even now.