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Unfamiliar Territory: Composers Working In Unfamiliar Genres

We’re exploring composers diving into unfamiliar waters this week! (Credit: Pixabay)

We have a tendency to pigeonhole certain composers: Puccini, he’s an opera composer. Or Sibelius, he’s a symphony guy. But this week on the show, we’re going to prove that people can defy your expectations. We’re looking at pieces by composers writing in genres you might not expect, in a show we’re calling “Unfamiliar Territory.” Check out our playlist below:


  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), An Die Ferne Geliebte – Although Beethoven is primarily known for his symphonies and piano works, no challenge was too great for him. In 1816, Beethoven set his compositional sights on the art of Lieder (or song). He composed the song cycle An Die Ferne Geliebte (“To The Distant Beloved”), based on the words of Alois Isidor Jeitteles, a physician who dabbled in poetry. An Die Ferne Geliebte weaves six of Jeitteles’ poems into a cohesive whole, painting a musical portrait of unrequited love. This was Beethoven’s only attempt at a song cycle, turning his attention to the Hammerklavier piano sonata soon after. But interestingly, An Die Ferne Geliebte is the first song cycle of its kind, predating similar works by Schubert and Schumann.

 

  • Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), String Quartet – Giuseppe Verdi usually wasn’t one for trying new things. He was an opera composer, full stop. He wrote 37 operas and only a handful of other kinds of works, most of which were vocal. However in 1873, Verdi found himself with a bit of free time. He was involved in a production of his opera Aida in Naples, but the lead soprano fell ill, causing a delay. Verdi decided to make the most of this situation by trying his hand at a string quartet. It didn’t take too long—in a few weeks, he had arranged for a private performance of the quartet. By that time, the soprano was on the mend and Aida was back up and running. Verdi’s foray into this unfamiliar chamber music territory was very short lived. Not only was this his only string quartet, but it’s also Verdi’s only surviving attempt at writing chamber music.

 

  • Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Il Mondo Della Luna – Il Mondo della Luna was the first of Haydn’s operas to be staged following the institution of a regular opera season at Esterháza in 1776.  Although the exact date is not known, it was given in honor of the marriage of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy’s second son, Count Nikolaus and Countess Maria Anna Wiessenwolf. In this comic opera, the false astrologer Ecclitico devises a plot to allow three pairs of lovers to marry by tricking an overprotective father with scenes of an idyllic life on the moon. Haydn wrote fourteen operas for the Esterhazys over the course of two decades, although they are not as popular today as his symphonies. Haydn might not have composed any operas at all if it hadn’t been for the fanciful whims of Prince Nikolaus. After commissioning 125 chamber works from Haydn, Prince Nikolaus suddenly decided he wanted to produce operas.

 

  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Verklärte Nacht – Arnold Schoenberg is known today as a pioneer in atonal music. He even went as far as creating a whole new compositional system to de-emphasize tonality, his twelve-tone serialism. Schoenberg’s chamber string work Verklärte Nacht might seem like unfamiliar territory for the atonal composer, since this work evokes the late-romantic tonality of Wagner and Brahms—it even begins with a clear D minor harmony for the opening 16 measures. However, Verklärte Nacht was one of Schoenberg’s first works. It wasn’t until a decade later that he began to compose freely atonal works. Verklärte Nacht (or “Transfigured Night”) was based a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, and inspired by Schoenberg’s feelings for Mathilde Zemlinsky, his future wife and the sister of composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s teacher. If Schoenberg were alive today, I’d assume he’d be miffed that Verklärte Nacht, his most overtly tonal work, is also his most frequently performed work.

 

  • Franz Liszt (1811–1886), Missa Choralis – Composer Franz Liszt spent the early part of his life as a modern, worldly man. The piano virtuoso toured all over Europe, where he was a supporter of revolutionary ideas, admired by the cosmopolitan elite, and even became a prominent member of a Freemason lodge. However in 1865, Franz Liszt’s secular life became much more religious—as did his music. That year, he visited Cardinal Gustav Hohenlohe at the Vatican in Rome, where he became a member of a monastic order and henceforth became known as Abbé Liszt. This desire to move into the unfamiliar, sacred territory had begun years earlier when he heard the music of Palestrina performed in the Sistine Chapel. This inspired his Missa Choralis. Liszt had hoped to reform church music, but not in the modern way he revolutionized secular symphonic music. Rather, he wanted to reform church music to become even more conservative.

 

  • Richard Wagner (1813–1883), American Centennial March – When the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence rolled around in 1876, the United States government decided it would pull out all the stops for a national celebration. Plans were made to commemorate the event with new music, commissioned by the most famous composer of the era. In 1876, that composer was Richard Wagner. Wagner was at the height of his career, and had recently begun construction on his theater at Bayreuth and a lavish family mansion named Villa Wahnfried. The United States paid Wagner five thousand dollars to write the American Centennial March, and apparently it was this price alone that kept Wagner motivated to finish the piece. His wife Cosima wrote in her diary that after completing it, Wagner quipped that the best thing about the march was the money he got paid for it. Perhaps audiences agree, because it remains one of the most rarely performed works of Wagner’s entire output.

 

  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), Teuzzone – When most people hear the name Vivaldi, they usually think of instrumental music, especially violin concertos. But Vivaldi also had a side gig as an opera impresario. Given where he worked, it is no surprise that Vivaldi was interested in opera. He was music director at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice during the early 18th century, when both Venice and Mantua were bursting at the seams with publicly-funded opera. Theaters were popping up all over both cities, and all of them would wheel and deal to produce the operas of famous composers. By the time he completed his twelfth opera Teuzzone, Vivaldi had already made a name for himself as a brilliant violinist and  composer, making the opera’s premier very lucrative. His love of the violin also made its way into his operatic style. Many of his arias are actually duets between a voice and a violin.

 

  • Dave Brubeck (1920–2012), The Light In The Wilderness– Dave Brubeck ranks as one of the most successful jazz artists of the 20th century, remembered for hits like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” both featured tracks from his signature 1959 album Time Out. You might guess from his experimentation with odd time signatures in “Take Five” and the subtle hint to Mozart in “Blue Rondo A La Turk” that Brubeck also had an interest in classical music. Dave Brubeck came from a musical family and studied under Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland. Starting in the 1960s, Brubeck began to compose music that combined jazz and classical idioms, just like his teacher Milhaud. Much of Brubeck’s output in later years were large-scale classical pieces inspired by his faith. These include oratorios like The Light In The Wilderness from 1968 and The Gates Of Justice from 1969.

 

  • Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971), There Will Be Blood Score – Although Jonny Greenwood is widely renowned as the lead guitarist of the English art rock band Radiohead, he is also highly accomplished as an orchestral and film score composer, with nine concert works and eight film scores under his belt. Greenwood’s reputation reached new heights in 2007 after he completed the score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood.  The film’s music was hugely well-received by critics, among them film composer titan Hans Zimmer, who praised Greenwood’s score as “recklessly, crazily beautiful.” The score to There Will Be Blood was a top audience pick for a 2007 Academy Award for Best Film Score. However it was deemed ineligible because Greenwood had included music in the soundtrack from an orchestral work that he had composed two years earlier. Regardless, it was nominated for a Grammy and named top film score of the decade by Rolling Stone.

Want more? Check out our Unfamiliar Territory Podcast from this week!

Music Heard On This Episode

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