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Royal Residences: Classical Works About Castles

Ether Game's list of music all about castles, palaces, and other royal residences.

We're lowering the drawbridge and crossing the moat, as we explore some musical royal palaces this week!

This week on the program, the Ether Game Brain Trust is having fun storming the castle! We’re looking at musical castles, palaces, and grand estates of all kinds, in a show we’re calling “Royal Residences.” Here’s our bulwark playlist for you to enjoy:

  • Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) – Pictures At An Exhibition: Il Vecchio Castello (The Old Castle) – Pictures at an Exhibition is based on artwork by Mussorgsky’s late friend, Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann—an artist, architect, and stage designer—died at an early age of an aneurism. Shortly after his death, an exhibition of over 400 of his works was organized—the inspiration for Mussorgsky’s tribute. The piece was originally scored for solo piano, but is most often heard as an orchestration by Maurice Ravel. The second movement of this piece depicts a decrepit Italianate castle with a medieval troubadour sitting at the base of the castle’s outer wall. Hartmann often included human figures in his landscape watercolors so that the viewer would have an idea of the scale of the image.

  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) – Cantata No. 80, Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott – At a time when mighty castles, palaces, and royal residences of all kinds dominated Europe, the Lutherans put their faith in a different kind of mighty fortress: God. The melody and text of the famous Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott (or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) were written by the church reformer himself Martin Luther, and this particular chorale became the de facto hymn of the Reformation in the 16th-century. Luther was a skilled musician, and part of his reformer ideas was to incorporate vernacular language and musical participation into the church service. Contemporary Lutheran composers like Johann Walter and Lupus Hellinck began to harmonize this chorale, and the melody was later used by Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and more. But the ne plus ultra harmonization comes from Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who used Ein Feste Burg in multiple compositions, including this Cantata No. 80.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) – The Abduction From The Seraglio – In the late 18th century, the Viennese court decided to sponsor a project with local theaters to produce operas in the German language. While the project turned out to be a failure, it was able to produce a few great successes, including Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. Set in a Turkish harem, Mozart knew that Viennese audiences were drawn to the perceived exoticism of the Ottoman Turks whom Austria had warred with for centuries. The first act of the opera is set in the country palace of a Turkish Pasha named Osmin. In Turkish culture, a Pasha’s political status was similar to that of a governor or knight. Mozart’s audience would have associated the seraglio or harem in Pasha Osman’s palace with a kind of exotic, forbidden female sexuality. In reality, the harems of Ottoman palaces originated as the private living spaces for upper class Muslim women and their royal courts.

  • Richard Wagner (1813–1883) – Tannhäuser – In Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, history and myth are blended together through the filter of nineteenth-century German nationalism. The story takes place at the real historic castle known as the Wartburg, and the legendary singing competition, or Sängerkrieg, that supposedly took place there during the middle ages. Our hero is Tannhäuser, a master singer who tries to compete, only to find that he has been damned because of a salacious trip he took to the home of Venus, the goddess of love. It seems that even the Pope can’t save Tannhäuser’s soul, but he is eventually redeemed by pure love of a woman named Elizabeth. Real characters populate Wagner’s opera: the poets Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide supposedly participated in the contest at the Wartburg. A real Elizabeth resided there too, and she was later canonized as a saint.

  • Béla Bartók (1881–1945) – Bluebeard’s Castle – Disturbingly, the murderous nobleman that is at the center of the old French folktale “Bluebeard” is apparently a composite of a number of real historical figures. The 15th-century Breton nobleman and serial killer Gilles de Rais, who liked to commit motiveless, brutal murders of children, the early Breton king Conomor the Accursed, who was in the habit of murdering his wives once they became pregnant, and the infamous Henry VIII may have all served as inspiration for the character of the vengeful blue-bearded nobleman. Bluebeard, as the original tale goes, is wealthy but shunned on account of his ugly blue beard. He becomes feared for his habit of killing his wives and leaving their bodies in a secret room in his castle! Béla Bartók reworked the original folktale significantly for his 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle, leaving Bluebeard’s wives alive, but permanently imprisoned in the castle.

  • Frederick Delius (1862–1934) – The Splendour Falls On Castle Walls – Frederick Delius was born in England, the son of a successful businessman in the wool trade.  Although it was assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, Frederick showed no interest in wool, preferring instead to manage an orange plantation near Jacksonville, Florida. After four years, Delius was finally permitted to return to Europe and enroll in the Leipzig Conservatory in 1886. Although Delius gained a reputation for incorporating the music of the black workers he heard in Florida into his compositional style, he also found inspiration in the poetry of his homeland. This choral piece borrows text from a famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called The Princess, which Tennyson published only three years before he became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Many other famous British composers also set portions of The Princess to music, including Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.

  • Rentaro Taki (1879–1903) – Kojo No Tsuki (Moonlight Over The Ruined Castle) –  Japanese composer Rentaro Taki is one of the most famous composers in Japanese history, despite only living to the very young age of 23. He was born in 1879 in Tokyo, and left Japan to study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. Unfortunately, he came down with tuberculosis there, and passed away in 1903. His work Kojo No Tsuki was originally written for the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument that’s a cross between a duclimer and a sitar. It’s a pictorial work, musical depicting the moonlight shining down on the ruins of a 12th-century Japanese castle. Kojo No Tsuki has become one of Taki’s most enduring works, mostly because it’s still used today as an educational piece for young musicians in Japan.

  • Howard Shore (b. 1946) – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, “Minas Tirith” – Howard Shore’s film scores for the Lord of the Rings movies match the Wagnerian proportions of Tolkien’s story in more ways than one. Shore’s work on the films has been called the greatest achievement in the history of film music, and consisted of over thirteen hours of original music with four hundred musicians. We just heard the music for the first major appearance in the third film of the great walled city and castle of the kingdom of men, called “Minas Tirith.” While filming, director Peter Jackson chose to use miniatures to film the wide shots for many of the iconic structures in The Lord of the Rings. In order to achieve the level of detail that he wanted, his production team had to make the Minas Tirith miniature over twenty feet tall, and re-dubbed the model a “Bigature.” Fourteen other bigatures were constructed for the movies, but Minas Tirith remained one of the largest.


Music Heard On This Episode


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