One of enduring myths about classical music is that it always describes something. There are plenty of examples to keep this notion alive. Tchaikovsky’s colourful 1812 Overture was written to commemorate the successful Russian defense against Napoleon’s invaders. Then there’s that famous piece by Vaughan Williams which describes an ascending lark while other descriptive pieces include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Gershwin’s An American in Paris and almost anything by Debussy. If music is composed to portray a series of events or scenes it’s usually described as programme music. Although there are a few rare examples of descriptive music from earlier times, the first major instrumental work to have a programme was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a set of violin concertos which include musical descriptions of singing birds, buzzing flies, storms, drunken dancers and hunting parties. At one point, there’s a pale imitation of a barking dog. It consists of a single repeated note played on the viola but doesn’t sound much like a dog or indeed any other animal. If Vivaldi hadn’t written a comment in the score (“a dog barks”) nobody would be any the wiser. The concept of programme music flowered during the romantic period and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was one of his few works based on an explicit programme and probably the first significant example of the 19th century.
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Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of classical music doesn’t describe anything at all. It’s sometimes referred to as absolute music – a rather awkward expression which refers to music that doesn’t exist outside itself. It includes almost all the instrumental music ever written. However, this hasn’t stopped composers from using programmatic ideas in their music, perhaps for non-musical reasons. For example, A Sea Symphony sounds more evocative than plain old Symphony No 1, which it was.
There’s plenty of programme music inspired by places, stories, birds and animals though far fewer examples inspired by insects. Mussorgsky’s Song of the Flea was originally written for soprano, but has become popular with bass singers. Rimsky-Korsakov’s virtuosic The Flight of the Bumble Bee (known among musicians as The Bum of the Flightle Bee) and it began life as an orchestral interlude to one of his operas. Bartók’s piano pieces entitled From the diary of a Fly consist of 150 piano pieces of increasing difficulty. We’ll have to discount Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly because it’s not about a butterfly at all. Robert Schumann wrote a set of piano pieces entitled Papillons (which in case you’d forgotten, is the French word for “butterflies”). Strictly speaking, they’re not about butterflies either but about a masked ball, inspired by a Jean Paul novel.
This fine performance was filmed in Paris almost sixty years ago, but to my mind it’s one of the great historical recordings. In those days Wilhelm Kempff was probably at his peak as a performer, despite the fact that he continued to give piano recitals until he was well in his eighties. Kempff is considered by many professional pianists to be one of the greatest of all time and although his repertoire included music by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, he was particularly admired for his performances of Beethoven and Schubert. He performed world-wide and made ten performance visits to Japan. The Japanese government was so impressed that it named a small island after him.
George Crumb is one of America’s foremost composers and became intensely interested in novel timbres, extremes of dynamics, dissonance and complex alternative notation systems. He often required instruments to be played in unusual ways. This strangely disturbing work of 1970 comes from Black Angels, subtitled Thirteen Images from the Dark Land. It’s scored for what the composer described as an “electric string quartet” whose members are also required to play a variety of other instruments including two suspended gongs, small percussion instruments and sets of crystal glasses, tuned by filling them with different amounts of water. The music often uses extreme registers of the instruments as well as extended techniques such as bowing on the fingerboard or tapping the strings with a thimble.
The players are also required to add vocal sounds during the performance. The work has thirteen movements beginning and ending with a movement chillingly entitled Night of the Electric Insects. It was used with terrifying effect in The Exorcist. By any standards this is extraordinary music, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. For maximum effect, listen to it on headphones, alone in a darkened room with the video switched off. But don’t blame me if the experience freaks you out.