Rise and shine, early-rising Ether Gamers! This week, our theme is the morning. We’ll be looking at works all about the crack of dawn, in a show we’re calling “Sunrise”! Check out our daybreaking selections below:
- Edvard Grieg (1843–1907), Peer Gynt: “Morning Mood” – Just as a good film score can heighten the mood on the screen, good incidental music to a play could heighten the action on the stage. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was one of the masters of the craft and a father of the modern stage. In 1874, he personally commissioned Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg to write the incidental music for his play Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt is steeped in Norwegian folklore, and tells the story of a rambler named Peer who leaves his home searching for adventure, only to return years later a bitter, empty old man. “Morning Mood” is one of the famous excerpts from the incidental music—heard at the beginning of Act IV when Peer wakes up in the Moroccan desert. Although, you probably know it best as the morning music for many Saturday morning cartoons.
- Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), William Tell Overture: “Prelude: Dawn” – The opening of the famous William Tell Overture depicts dawn over medieval Switzerland, the place where folk hero and expert marksman William Tell helped overthrow the government to create the new Swiss confederacy in the 14th century. In modern culture, however, this dawn music is not even the most famous dawn music from this overture! Later in the overture, you hear the flute and the English horn perform a melody known as the Ranz des Vaches or “Call To The Cows,” a traditional, pastoral melody used to herd livestock in the Swiss Alps. Interestingly, it’s this melody (not the section of the overture labeled “Dawn”) that’s used to depict daybreak in popular culture. The Ranz des Vaches was used almost as often as Grieg’s “Morning Mood” as pastoral sunrise music in Looney Tunes and other Saturday morning cartoons.
- Ferde Grofé (1892–1972), Grand Canyon Suite: “Sunrise” – Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, remembered today simply as “Ferde” Grofé, came from a musical family, and after working at a series of odd jobs, gravitated toward music as a career. He was only 17 years old when he received his first commission, a march for a Los Angeles Elks Club convention. In 1916. Grofé, with some his friends, drove across the Arizona desert to watch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon. This one-of-a-kind spectacle wasn’t formally documented until only about 50 years earlier, when Major John Wesley Powell explored the entire canyon in 1869. Being heavily inspired by the spectacle, Grofé later wrote several pieces of music. His Grand Canyon Suite was premiered by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1931, where Grofé served as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian. In 1958 it was used as the theme to Walt Disney’s Academy-Award-winning short film Grand Canyon.
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”: I. Allegro con spirito – The 1790s were Haydn’s glory years. His reputation as a world-class composer expanded beyond his day-to-day duties as a court musician. He became famous in the metropolitan cities of London and Vienna. Around this time, he also began work on his Op. 76 string quartets, a group of six quartets that further expanded the genre that made Haydn famous. The fanciful nickname of the fourth quartet from this set, “Sunrise,” refers to the opening movement, which opens with a slowly arcing violin, a gesture many listeners have imagined as a “rising sun.” At the same time, Haydn was underway with musically depicting an even more epic sunrise. Haydn wrote his monumental oratorio The Creation in 1797, at the same time he was working on his Op. 76 quartets. In that piece, he creates a musical depiction of the very first sunrise of creation.
- Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Khovanshchina: Act 1 Prelude “Dawn On The Moscow River” – Mussorgsky came up with the idea for his opera Khovanshchina in 1872 and began work on it the next year, but the project was continually delayed. Part of the reason for this was his involvement with another opera Sorochintsï Fair, begun in 1874. Work progressed on the two operas in tandem for a while, until the latter part of 1878 when Mussorgsky’s alcoholism began to affect his ability to work. In fact, Mussorgsky was nearly fired from his job at the forestry department because of his drinking. Last-minute intervention from friends found him a new government job with a very lenient supervisor. In the end, neither opera was complete when Mussorgsky died in 1881. Rimsky-Korsakov completed Khovanshchina, and it was first performed in 1886. The opening prelude depicts a sunrise on the Moscow River, but ironically, the natural peace of the moment is broken in the opera by a drunken soldier who looks to the rising light to help clear his head.
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Daphnis et Chloé: Part III: “Lever du jour” (“Daybreak”) – In 1908 the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev approached Maurice Ravel with the idea of doing a ballet for the Ballet Russes on the story of Daphnis and Chloe, with the scenario to be provided by the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Difficulties arose however when Fokine used the story as told by the ancient Greek author Longus and Ravel chose instead to work from a sixteenth century translation by Jacques Amyot. Although the premiere had to be postponed twice due to their differing perspectives and Ravel’s insistence on perfecting his music, the result was well worth the wait. It was conducted by Pierre Monteux with great success. Part three of the ballet opens with a musical depiction of a sunrise, complete with bird songs, soaring melodies and washes of sound. Many critics have hailed it as some of the best sunrise music ever written.
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Gurre-Lieder: “Sunrise” – If you’re familiar with Schoenberg’s later music, you might not recognize this early work as a piece by the father of atonality. Gurre-Lieder was written around 1900, before Schoenberg began experimenting with free atonality and 12-tone serialism. It’s based on a novel by the Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen about the folklore surrounding the 13th-century Gurre Castle in Denmark (hence the name Gurre-Lieder, literally,“Songs of Gurre”). This castle was once home to the Danish king Valdemar, whose mistress Tove was murdered by the queen. Gurre-Lieder is not an opera, but rather more of a freeform cantata, depicting various scenes from the love affair between Valdemar and Tove. This particular scene comes after Tove’s death. A grieving Valdemar has raised an army of the dead who savagely roam the castle grounds—that is, until the sunrise returns them to their eternal slumber.
- Sir 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 of the late composer 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 he 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 stage.
- Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler On The Roof: “Sunrise, Sunset” – The sunrise and sunset of this show-stopping number from Fiddler On The Roof is a metaphor. It’s performed at the wedding of Tevye’s eldest daughter, representing the swift passage of time, the sunrise of a new love, and the sunset of a childhood. Composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick didn’t think much of the song’s simple melody at first. However, when they played the song to their family members, it brought them to tears. It was then that Bock and Harnick realized the profound, universal message embedded into this simple song. Fiddler on the Roof became an unlikely Broadway hit in 1964, thanks in part to a charismatic performance by Zero Mostel as Tevye, a Russian Jewish peasant grappling with balancing tradition and the changing times. Fiddler was so popular that for almost a decade it was the longest-running Broadway musical, until it was surpassed by Grease about 8 years later.