Classical Connections: Morning, Noon and Night

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One of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons shows the illustrious rabbit attempting to conduct an orchestra, but thwarted in his attempt largely by a bothersome fly.  The music was the overture Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna by Franz von Suppé.  He was a successful Austrian composer of light operas whose parents, perhaps in a moment of sheer madness, had christened him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere di Suppé-Demelli.  Understandably, he abbreviated this elephantine name at the earliest opportunity.  Over the years his operas and operettas have fallen into obscurity, but his colourful overtures seem to have survived.

There are many pieces of classical music that were evidently inspired by a particular time of day, and having nothing much to do recently I started to make a list of them.  As it turned out, most of the works I could recall were actually about evening or night rather than the daytime.  There’s that lovely piece by Delius, Summer Night on the River and the sumptuously harmonic Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg.  Then there’s Khachaturian’s nocturne from the Masquerade Suite and of course all those other nocturnes by Chopin, Fauré, Liszt and the Irish composer John Field who actually invented the genre.

Two other well-known nocturnal pieces are Manuel de Falla’s brilliant Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, known by alternative English titles depending on how the Russian is translated.

You can probably think of others, but I’ve chosen three pieces on the “times of day” theme, one of which is extremely well-known, another a little bit less so and a third which is hardly known in Europe, let alone Asia.

Edvard Grieg in 1888.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No 1. Limburg Symphony Orchestra cond. Otto Tausk (Duration 03:54, Video 720p HD)

Edvard Grieg provided the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play of the same name, which describes the adventures and dubious exploits during the life of Peer Gynt.  About twenty years later Grieg extracted various sections of the music to create two suites each of four movements, though why he waited so long is anyone’s guess.  Morning Mood is the first movement of the first suite, and many people assume that it depicts Peer Gynt gazing heroically over some Nordic landscape.  In fact, it comes from the fourth act of the play, when the sun rises to reveal our eponymous hero up a tree in Morocco, protecting himself from a horde of grunting apes.  The theme has acquired international fame through its use in films and television programmes.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Orchestra Dell’accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia cond. Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 11:59, Video: 480p)

This evocative symphonic poem was written in 1894 and was inspired by a poem of the same name by the Parisian poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.  It was one of the most significant musical works of its time, consisting of a complex organization of musical cells and motifs.  It’s not actually descriptive in the usual sense of the word but it uses rich whole-tone harmonies, daring orchestration and to contemporary audiences must have sounded very modern indeed.

Leonard Bernstein wrote that the work “stretched the limits of tonality” and in so doing, set the harmonic stage for the atonal music of the century to come.  In this film, Bernstein conducts the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of the best-known orchestras in Italy.

Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez (1899-1940) Noche de Encantamiento. Orchestre de Paris cond. Kristjan Järvi (Duration: 13:15, Video: 720p HD)

This piece could hardly be more different from Grieg’s gentle evocation of sunrise.  Revueltas is considered one of the most significant composers of twentieth-century Mexican music.  He used dissonance freely and his works have a rhythmic vitality and raw energy.  He once wrote, “My rhythms are booming, dynamic, tactile and visual”.

Although Revueltas wrote chamber music, songs and a number of other works, his best-known composition is the score for the 1939 Mexican film La Noche de los Mayas (“The Night of the Mayas”).  Like Grieg, Revueltas decided to create an orchestral suite from the dramatic music but he died before even starting it.  The donkey work was taken up by his younger compatriot José Ives Limantour and the reworking of the original film score preserves the composer’s native Mexican rhythms.  It also calls for a selection of native Mexican instruments including the caracol, guiro, huehuetl, sonajas, tumbadora and the tumkul.

The work is symphonic in design and cast in four movements with this one, “Night of Enchantment” being the last.  You’ll need a good sound system or high quality headphones to fully appreciate this thrilling and relentlessly percussive music.  Needless to say, it’s real blood-and-guts stuff and not for wimps or those of a delicate disposition.