Classical Connections: Merrie Melodies

Leonard Bernstein (Photo Susesch Bayat; Courtesy Deutsche Grammophon)

A good few years ago, when I was a music education adviser, I once became intensely irritated on hearing a well-meaning but ill-informed music teacher talking to her class about “happy sounds” and “sad sounds”. She was trying to explain the difference between the intervals of the major third and the minor third, claiming that the first sounded happy and the second sounded sad. Now if this terminology is meaningless to you, I won’t push the point but the fact remains that trying to describe the effect of two notes played together as “happy” or “sad” is utterly meaningless. It is complete and total nonsense and with as much tact and diplomacy as I could muster, I told her so. I don’t think she believed me and is probably still teaching her kids about happy and sad music to this day.

I mention all this because the other day, I found an article online in which someone had listed examples of “music that makes you happy” or some such inane title. It is a hopelessly naïve idea that music is either “happy” or “sad”. There are countless other shades of meaning and emotion between and outside these simplistic notions. Some music can be so full of radiant joy and elation that it makes your spirits soar and you find yourself weeping. Now why is that, I wonder? Well, my knowledge of psychology is such that I’d prefer to leave that for you to ponder. You may recall that Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks”.

My Scottish grandmother used to brighten her day by listening to records of Jimmy Shand and his Band. Jimmy was a rather dour-looking Scot who played the accordion and eventually formed his own dance band that played foot-tapping music of unbridled joy. However, the relentless merriment eventually becomes tiresome and intensely irritating, thereby creating the opposite effect of what it was supposedly intended to do.

Even so, I can think of many classical pieces that uplift the spirits. Most composers know perfectly well that unrelenting jollity – or unrelenting melancholy for that matter – can become wearisome. In Gustav Holst’s piece Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity the sprightly, scintillating mood eventually gives way to one of his noblest and uplifting melodies.  Dvorák’s effervescent Carnival Overture, includes a beautiful middle section of almost heart-breaking nostalgia. And talking of overtures, here are some that might lift your spirits too. They’re all somewhat similar in structure, with vivacious opening themes contrasted with slower more reflective melodies.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857): Overture Ruslan and Ludmilla. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, cond. Valery Gergiev (Duration 04:33; Video 1080p HD)

This is a sizzling overture, which I first came across at the age of about fourteen. It’s remarkable that the music sounds so fresh for something written in 1840. Glinka was the father of Russian classical music and although he was a prolific composer, he’s known in the West for only a handful of works. He’s highly regarded in Russia where three music conservatories are named after him. Conductor Valery Gergiev takes the overture at a fair old lick, revealing the competence of this superb Russian orchestra. A few degrees faster, and the piece would probably be unplayable. As usual, he appears to be conducting with the aid of a toothpick.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987): Overture Colas Breugnon. New England Conservatory Philharmonia cond. Andrew Litton (Duration: 05:42; Video: 1080p HD)

This was the first piece I heard through a newly-acquired pair of stereo headphones when I was about twenty-two. It sounded wonderful at the time and still sounds a fresh as ever. As a child, Kabalevsky was deeply interested in the arts and was an accomplished pianist, also dabbling in poetry and painting. He became a prolific composer of piano music, much admired by Vladimir Horowitz. Like Glinka, little of his work is known in the West with the exception perhaps of the Third Piano Concerto. The three-act opera Colas Breugnon was written between 1936 and 1938 and based on a novel by Romain Rolland.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Overture Candide. London Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernstein (Duration: 04:41; Video: 480p)

Perhaps best known for his opera West Side Story, Bernstein was also an author, music lecturer, conductor and brilliant pianist. Music critic Donal Henahan, claimed that Bernstein was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” His operetta Candide was first performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name by Voltaire, written almost exactly two hundred years earlier. The overture is a lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way (at 01:21) to a passionate melody that recurs triumphantly later in the work. The exciting coda which begins at 03.23 makes a satisfying conclusion to this heart-warming overture. An added bonus is that when he’s conducting, Bernstein is always entertaining to watch.