Orchestral Masterpieces ExploredOrchestral Masterpieces Explored


Orchestral Music Examples

An orchestra’s instrumentation can have a profound effect on a musical idea. The harmony, melody and rhythm will guide, if not dictate, the tone color and emotional content.

For instance, reserving the use of orchestral cymbals until a loud or climactic moment can make an enormous difference to an arrangement.

1. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons is arguably the pinnacle of 18th-century Baroque music. It is also the first example of what would later be known as “program music” – that is, music with a narrative element that depicts a particular scene or idea. Vivaldi’s violin concertos represented the seasons, as well as various natural phenomena and events – flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each of which was characterized in the music), a goatherd and his barking dog, storms, drunken village folk dancing, and even hunting parties from both the hunters’ and prey’s point of view.

The opening movement of Summer depicts the merrymaking and song of country folk as they celebrate the bounty of a bountiful harvest. The tempo slows as the peasants succumb to Bacchus’ liquor and end their revelry in sleep. A virtuosic first violin reflects this intoxication with woozy chords that sound like a hangover. The same woozy chords are used in the slow movement of Autumn, which evocates the joy of a bountiful harvest.

2. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

As you’ve learned in this series, harmony, melody, and rhythm can all drive the color and emotion of a piece of music. They may also guide, if not dictate, how it is orchestrated.

Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, for whom he had already composed two other ballets, The Firebird and Petrushka. He started writing the score for this ballet, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, in 1910.

At its premiere in 1913, the audience went wild at the raucous performance. Although it didn’t quite erupt into a full-scale riot, critic Gustav Linor wrote, “Never was the theatre so crowded or resplendent.” Stravinsky’s use of the modernist tools of dissonance, rhythm, and meter gave the music its shocking power. It pushed the boundaries of orchestration and ushered in a new era for classical music. It also remains one of the most famous and influential orchestral music examples. Almost 100 years later, it still sounds as revolutionary as ever.

3. Dvorak’s New World Symphony

Although he didn’t set out to create an American school of composition like Copland, Dvorak certainly embraced America’s music and culture with his ninth symphony. He wrote this piece during his first year in New York and completed it while vacationing in Spillville, Iowa, with a large community of Czech immigrants.

The opening theme, with its long melodic line doubled at the octave by strings and basses, is perhaps one of the most iconic in orchestral music. The melody is often compared to a Native American bird call and supposedly derived from one Dvorak heard while in the US.

Formally the symphony is solidly within European tradition, with a sonata-form opening, a meditative largo with restless outbursts, a lusty scherzo and a triumphant finale. Dvorak also incorporated specific melodies from African American spirituals and plantation songs into the work. This blending of the old and the new was a sign of his success in embracing America’s rich musical heritage.

4. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss II – the composer of such iconic tunes as the Blue Danube and the Emperor Waltz – was a master of operetta, and this light-hearted take on a New Year’s Eve reveillon is no exception. Mistaken identities, disguises and a practical joke gone awry combine to create an evening of fun and frivolity.

Both Karajan and Lehar rely on large orchestras and strive for a brilliant orchestral sound (the music that follows Camille’s attempt to get into Orlofsky’s pavilion sounds very much like Richard Strauss [of perhaps Rosenkavalier]). Both use a fairly straightforward harmonic language, omitting chromaticism except where necessary.

The cast is strong; Eva Lind is a rather shrill, twittery and wearing Adele but Wolfgang Brendel is smooth and silky as Falke, while Lucia Popp makes a convincing Rosalinde and Leontyne Price combines fervour and passion with an ability to sing lullabies with sultry languor. The overture, however, is the real star here.

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