We’re into the third week of the third month of the year. So this week, we’re exploring the magic number three. It’s a three-ring circus on this episode, looking at the number three in classical music in a show we’re calling “Three’s A Crowd.”
Hold your breath, count to three, and enjoy our playlist below:
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759–1791), Die Zauberflöte – The overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute introduces a scene in which Prince Tamino is pursued by an evil serpent while hunting in the realm of the Queen of the Night. He faints from fear, but is saved at the last moment by three of the Queen’s handmaidens. The three handmaidens are one of several trios that appear throughout The Magic Flute. There are also the three spirits that guide Tamino on his quest to save Princess Pamina, and the three trials of silence, fire and water that Tamino and Pamina pass in order to enter the Temple of Wisdom. The rule of three appears often in The Magic Flute, probably because it is a significant number in Freemasonry, the fraternal order of which Mozart was a member, and whose symbols inspired the plot of the opera. There are three degrees of membership in Freemasonry, and three pillars of wisdom, strength, and beauty that are followed by its members.
- Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), Fountains of Rome – Although the centrality of Italian opera tends to dominate Italy’s musical life, the great city of Rome has always been an important center for the less-celebrated tradition of Italian instrumental music, such as the three “Roman” tone poems of Ottorino Respighi—Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. The three tone poems run the expressive gamut, from pastoral depictions of architecture and landscapes, to boisterous and brutal depictions of ancient Roman rituals. We just heard the first movement from the earliest set, Fountains of Rome, which depicts the transition from dawn at the serene fountain of Valle Giulia, a swath of countryside right outside Roman city limits, to morning inside the city at the famous Triton Fountain. Respighi himself settled down in Rome, when he was given a teaching position at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1913. A few years later, he achieved international fame with Fountains of Rome.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), The Love For Three Oranges – You’ve probably heard of the “rule of three” in comedy—the structure of a joke works better if there are three items involved (a priest, a minister, and a rabbi, for instance). Well, this “rule of three” also applies to other oral traditions, namely fairy tales. So many fairy tales have prominent groups of three: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” It really is the magic number! Prokofiev’s bizarre opera The Love For Three Oranges also has fairy tale origins. It’s based on a fairy tale called “The Three Citrons” from the Italian collection of fairy tales known as Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile. In the tale, a prince is cursed to fall in love with three oranges. Inside each orange lives a very thirsty princess. When he breaks these three oranges open, two of the princesses die of thirst, while the third lives happily ever after with the prince.
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Piano Trio No. 39 in G major (“Gypsy”) – The piano trio is one of the most common forms of chamber music from the late 18th century, consisting most frequently of a piano, a cello, and a violin. Mozart wrote six piano trios and Beethoven wrote twelve. Franz Joseph Haydn on the other hand wrote 45 piano trios, the majority of them written after 1780. This is the finale from one of his most famous, the so-called “Gypsy” piano trio, named after the Hungarian (or “Gypsy”) style of this rondo finale. The performers here were the Beaux Arts Trio, a now defunct group led by its founding pianist, IU Distinguished Professor Menahem Pressler. Over the course of their 50+ years together, the Beaux Arts Trio recorded the entirety of the classic piano trio repertoire, including all the trios by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven and trios by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Fauré and many others.
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Images pour orchestre: No. 3 “Rondes de printemps” – Throughout his career, Debussy spoke often about incorporating elements of visual art into his music, and expressing them in musical terms. Rondes de printemps is an excellent example of this, forming the last part of a musical triptych that Debussy titled Images pour Orchestre. A triptych is an organizational term used in visual art to describe a work that is divided into three related panels, often hinged together so that the whole frame can be folded shut. The three “panels” of Images pour Orchestre are related in that they each conjure images of a European country: England, Spain and France. Debussy hoped that Rondes de printemps would musically depict ancient France during the Maying season, in which folk dancers would decorate themselves with laurels of colorful flowers. The movement features adaptations of several French folk songs set in the unusual time signature of 15/8.
- Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), Trio Sonata, Op. 3 no. 8 in C major – Known as a talented violinist, Arcangelo Corelli was the first composer to derive his fame exclusively from instrumental composition. Throughout his output of six collections of instrumental music, Corelli stuck to mostly three genres: solo sonatas, trio sonatas and concerti. The “trio” was typically comprised of two violins and continuo. However, two performers often made up the continuo part (violone plus harpsichord, for instance), making this trio more like a quartet. During the Baroque era, trio sonatas that were written in a fugal style and divided into movements according to tempo were called church sonatas or sonata da chiesa, while the sonata da camera, or chamber sonata, was essentially a dance suite. Corelli became known for mixing elements of both types of sonatas, regardless of the classification he gave to them. This trio sonata, with its “Largo” and “Allegro” tempo markings, more resembles a sonata da chiesa.
- Franz Schubert (1797–1828), Winterreise: Die Nebensonnen – Schubert’s song “Die Nebensonnen” from the song cycle Winterreise begins with the line “I saw three suns in the sky, and gazed at them long and intently.” No, Schubert is not taking about some alien planet that orbits three suns, but rather the optical phenomenon known as “sun dogs” (also known mock suns or “parhelia” in official meteorological terms). Sun dogs occur when sunlight refracts off of ice crystals in the air, causing an optical illusion of two false suns appearing on either side of the real sun. They most commonly occur in winter, so it makes sense Schubert would discuss them in the wintery piece Winterreise. People have often placed symbolic significance on the sun dogs. In Winterreise, our protagonist sees these three suns while in a depressed state, and hopes that they will go away, leaving him alone in darkness.
- Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1582–c. 1635), “There Were Three Ravens” – Thomas Ravenscroft, who lived in London in the early 1600s, was popular in his lifetime, but little is known about his life. Ravenscroft was kind of like the early 17th-century version of a pop star. He composed and collected light and humorous folk songs in a style that appealed to the masses. Many of these folks songs are forgotten today, like “The Cryers Songs of Cheape-Side” or “Tomorrow The Fox Will Come To Town.” But a few are remembered: for instance, Ravenscroft’s “The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse” is the basis of the folk song “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” Interestingly, many of Ravenscroft’s folk songs have to do with the number three. “There Were Three Ravens” (appropriate for a man named Ravenscroft) is about a group of ravens out searching for a meal to scavenge when they come across a tragic scene. The song includes the tuneful refrain “with a down-derrie-derrie-down-down.” Ravenscroft was also likely the first person to publish the popular nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice.”
- Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera: Mack The Knife – The tale of “Mack The Knife” goes all the way back to the 18th century. Macheath was a character in John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, a groundbreaking work all about the lower-class poor. In 1928, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht adapted the opera into a new German work called Die Dreigroschenoper or The Threepenny Opera. You probably know this song in English as performed by Bobby Darin or maybe Ella Fitzgerald. That English version comes from a 1954 edition of the play, written after Weill’s death, as translated by composer Marc Blitzstein. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya starred in both the versions of the show. In 1956, Columbia Records wanted to capitalize on this new English translation, so they brought in Lotte Lenya and Louis Armstrong to record jazz versions of “Mack The Knife.” Armstrong’s English version, using Blitzstein’s translation, became a hit, and made “Mack The Knife” a standard in American popular song.