Fascinating Stories Behind Musical Compositions

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Most people know the Barber of Seville through Gioachino Rossini’s opera. However, most non-music students would not know that in Rossini’s lifetime, the composer Giovanni Paisiello had written another Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was a big hit in the musical community, and was hailed as Paisiello’s magnum opus. In 1816, when Rossini’s Barber was premiered, the supporters of the old Barber attended the premiere, booing loudly so that none of Rossini’s music could be heard, even sneaking a cat onto the stage. However, time has filtered out Paisiello’s Barber and Rossini emerged triumphant.

Messa da Requiem

Maestro Rossini died in 1868. To honor his contributions to the Italian opera scene, the also great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi grouped together the leading Italian composers to write a movement each of a Requiem Mass, to be published as the Messa per Rossini. However, just 9 days before the premiere, the project fell through. The disappointed Verdi, who had written the Libera Me movement, ended his friendship with the conductor. 4 years later, when the writer Alessandro Manzoni died, Verdi utilized the Libera Me and wrote the remaining movements of the Requiem Mass, forming his fiery and fearsome Messa da Requiem.

Das Lied von der Erde

In Mahler’s time, there was a persistent fear amongst composers of the Curse of the Ninth. Beethoven died with only 9 symphonies completed, and several other composers such as Bruckner and Dvorak has also only have 9 symphonies. In Schoenberg’s words, “It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready.” Mahler was especially terrified of writing his own 9th. Therefore, after his 8th, he combined two of his most proficient forms, the symphony and the art song, and created a “Symphonic Song-cycle”. This is the Das Lied von der Erde, the song of the Earth. With this, Mahler proceeded to writing his 9th, believing to have broken the curse. Unfortunately, he died with his 10th incomplete.

Missa Papae Marcelli

The third session of the Council of Trent was held in 1562-1563. This council was called by the Vatican to reform itself as a counter to Martin Luther’s Reformation. Amongst the many reforms, polyphony was scheduled to be abolished in churches, reverting back to the monophonic Gregorian Chant. In Canon 8, it stated that “the entire manner of singing in musical modes should be calculated not to afford vain delight to the ear”. This is a reaction towards the extremely complicated polyphonic church music that exists in the time. Although it is more aesthetically pleasing, the words sung could no longer be distinguished, and the church felt that it brought religion out of the mass. Palestrina, according to legend, then wrote the Missa Papae Marcelli to demonstrate how polyphony can also be clear. This astounding usage of polyphony convinced the Council to accept polyphony in churches.

The Well-Tempered Clavier

Now that we can play all the keys on a piano, we take it for granted. Back in the Renaissance-Baroque era, all keyboards were tuned to equal temperament. That is that every note has a specific frequency. In so doing, an A on C major would be different from an A on D major. This meant that only certain keys could be played on one keyboard. Well-tempered tuning was introduced to solve this problem. A compromise was made so that, even though slightly out of tune, all keys could be played on a keyboard. This tuning survived to this very day. However, in Bach’s time, composers were still comfortable only in the more conservative keys. To this, Bach wrote the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, writing a prelude and fugue for every key, from C major to G-sharp minor. With this 48 preludes and fugues in the 24 possible keys, Bach demonstrated the merits of the more obscure keys.

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