Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Classical Music for Kids

Yesterday I posted a list of great pop songs for kids to listen to. But if you want to introduce them to classical music, there are lots of marvelous pieces that can ease them into the wonderful and complex world of orchestral, opera, and ballet music. Here are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order).

The Nutcracker, by Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker is a Christmas staple in my family. We began by watching movie and television versions with the kids when they were tiny, and then this year we brought them to their first live performance, by the Boston Ballet. They were mesmerized, and have requested music from the ballet as bedtime music on a regular basis ever since. There are also many beautifully illustrated children's books telling the story - the one illustrated by Maurice Sendak is a particular favorite of mine, and fun to read before watching the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, for which Sendak designed the sets.

Even apart from the context of the story and the ballet, however, the music is complex and interesting, with memorable melodies and rhythms, and wonderful use of featured instruments for specific themes.

The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What The Nutcracker is to ballet, The Magic Flute is to opera: a visually interesting, musically gorgeous and complex, dramatic and occasionally funny introduction to what can be a difficult genre. The music is incredibly difficult and shows the amazing range of the human voice. Compare Diana Damrau's brilliant coloratura as The Queen of the Night with Rene Pape's rich bass in "O Isis and Osiris". And what child would not be tickled by Papageno and Papageno's funny duet preceded by a trio of young boys who sing while flying (or at least, in this particular version, sitting on the shoulders of "invisible" puppeteers). Many recordings are available in English as well as the original German. The Metropolitan Opera's version, directed by Julie Taymor (of Broadway's The Lion King fame), is particularly accessible to children, because of its use of full-size puppetry (the bears! the witches! the food!) and flying, as well as marvelously fantastical costumes and sets.

Music for the Royal Fireworks, by George Frideric Handel
Handel's majestic, brass- and timpani-laden masterpiece captures the orchestral sound of the era, with harpsichord, various brass instruments (which were all valveless at the time, giving them a distinctive chord structure and sound), woodwinds (especially double reeds), and plenty of strings all being featured. The piece also has the advantage of having an interesting backstory, in that it was commissioned by King George II of England to celebrate the signing of the peace agreement of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession, in 1748. But the part of the story which children will find interesting is that the piece was performed publicly at Vauxhall Gardens 6 days before the official celebration, and over 12,000 people attended, creating a 3-hour traffic jam (and, reportedly, "scuffles among the footmen"). But even more exciting than that, the King ordered a huge structure with a "triumphal arch" to be built that would proclaim "VIVAT REX" ("May the King live") in letters of fire which were to burn for 5 hours. However, as the cannons were fired and the fireworks set off, the whole contraption burst into flames. Oops. But to what a score it burned!

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor (The Moonlight Sonata), by Ludwig van Beethoven
Most of us immediately think of the first movement of this piece when we hear the title "The Moonlight Sonata", and it is likely the most well-known movement. However, if you listen further, you will likely recognize the subsequent movements as well. This piece demonstrates Beethoven's use of both simple and very complex musical construction. The pounding chords and incredibly rapid fingering are typical of Beethoven and help to understand his style of composition, and aid in recognizing his other compositions.

The Barber of Seville (Il Barbieri di Siviglia), by Gioachino Rossini
Let's just admit it: We all know and love "The Barber of Seville" thanks to Bugs Bunny's "The Rabbit of Seville". It's brilliant and funny, and pairs Rossini's catchy melodies with typical Looney Tunes silliness. But the original opera supplies plenty of silliness as well, while retaining all those catchy melodies and adding in brilliantly trained vocalists as well as elaborate and colorful costumes and sets. Rossini's opera is based on the first of three plays written by Pierre Beaumarchais centering around a barber named Figaro (several other composers wrote less successful operas based on the same play; Mozart based his hugely successful opera "The Marriage of Figaro" on the second of the three plays). The plot is a complicated and confusing affair involving disguises, illicit love affairs, gossip, and bribery - all the usual opera devices. Figaro's opening aria is not only one of the most well-known to non-opera fans (again, largely due to Bugs Bunny), it's also really fun to sing along on the "lalalala" parts even if you don't know the Italian lyrics.

The Overture to "Candide", by Leonard Bernstein
Although the full operetta may be a bit highbrow for most children, the overture to "Candide" features the most beautiful and sweeping melodies, and the fascinating and unexpected rhythms and changes add lots of fun. Various sections feature individual instruments, including flute, French horns, timpani, and oboes. The link above features Bernstein himself conducting the overture, and it is a delight to watch his casual conducting style and his evident enjoyment of his own work, right up to the perfect final cutoff.

If you do decide to watch the full version, I highly recommend the semi-staged Great Performances special on PBS, which starred Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone, among others.

The Liberty Bell, by John Philip Sousa
No list of classical music would be complete without a march, and naturally, a march by Sousa is always appropriate. Although there are dozens of iconic marches by Sousa ("The Washington Post", "Stars and Stripes Forever", "Semper Fidelis", and "The Thunderer", just to name a few), "The Liberty Bell" is one of my personal favorites. Sousa was inspired to write the march after his son marched in a parade celebrating the return of the actual Liberty Bell to Philadelphia following a tour of the country. Despite being most well-known for its use as the Monty Python theme song, it's a wonderfully American march, right down to the clanging of the bell, which Sousa specifically added to the score (in the case of the recording linked above, the bell used is the ship's bell from the U.S.S. John Philip Sousa).

The march is also an excellent example of the standard march form that Sousa often employed, AABBCDCDC, so it can serve as a easily understood music theory lesson. On the linked recording, the initial A section repeats at 1:06; the B section begins at 1:22, with a quiet section featuring flutes and clarinets which is repeated more loudly by the brasses at 1:37; the C section begins at 1:53 with another quiet, more legato section; section D begins with the clanging bell at 2:26; at 2:51 we repeat C; at 3:23 we're back to D and the clanging bell; and finally at 3:48 we hear a brassier rendition of the C strain with the bells included to complete the march.

Carmen Suite #1, by Georges Bizet
Much like "Candide," the full version of Bizet's opera "Carmen", a tale of a fiery gypsy dancer, is likely somewhat heavy for younger listeners, but selections from the music are much more accessible. And much like "The Barber of Seville" and its Bugs Bunny version, many of us remember hearing the "Habanera" being sung by an animated orange on an episode of "Sesame Street." As well as the "Habanera," most of us recognize "The Toreador Song" (and probably sang it with the lyrics "Toreador-a, don't spit on the floor-a, use the cusipidor-a, whaddaya think it's for-a"). The music included in the suite range from fiery, fast-moving numbers to sweet, quiet waltzes and peppy folk dances.

The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi

Written as a series of four violin concertos based on each of the four seasons, Vivaldi included a series of poems (it is not clear if he was the author or not) clarifying the elements of each season that inspired his music. This is one of the earliest and most detailed instances of "program music," which includes a story or narrative aspect. My children are fascinated by the recording including the poems, recited by Patrick Stewart (you can listen to "Winter" with Stewart's narration here). These pieces are a beautiful example of music depicting an event and an emotion, and it's a great discussion for kids to analyze what different instruments bring to mind different feelings, or create different images.

Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saens
Aside from its brilliant depiction of 14 different animals, I love this particular piece because of the unusual orchestration of two pianos and orchestra. The pianos are often featured without the orchestra in the background, and even in instances when full orchestration might give a richer sound (the most obvious example being the lion's roar in the first movement, which is played by a long glissando up and down the piano keyboard rather than being given to the deeper tubas or string basses). Saint-Saens uses the differing timbres of the instruments to portray everything from lumbering elephants (string basses) to graceful swans (cello) to a cuckoo (clarinet) to dancing fossils (originally written for glass harmonica, but usually played by a glockenspiel). It's a fun game to guess which animal is being portrayed!

In the Hall of the Mountain King, by Edvard Grieg
As a child, I dubbed this piece "Tiptoe Music," because of the quiet, sneaky feel of the opening section, and I always imaged that whoever was tiptoeing was discovered and ran away in the loud and fast latter part of the piece. From Grieg's opera "Peer Gynt", the piece is sung by a group of trolls seeking vengeance on the man who has "seduced the fairest maid of the mountain king" - so my analysis probably isn't that far off. The piece features double reeds and pizzicato strings along with muted brasses at first, then adds flutes and percussion as the volume and tempo both increase, finally bringing in more strings and the brasses, climaxing with loud timpani and cymbals driving the tempo and volume until the piece ends with a series of dramatic crashes and pauses that culminate in a loud timpani roll and one final crash.

The Planets, by Gustav Holst
If you have a Star Wars fan in your house, Holst's "The Planets" is the perfect introduction to classical music for him or her, because John Williams shamelessly stole many of his themes for the score to the Star Wars films directly from Holst. For example, listen to the repeated single-note rhythm in "Mars, the Bringer of War," and you will recognize the stormtroopers' theme. Based not so much on the planets or even the gods they were named after, the pieces are based on astrology and the supposed effect on the human psyche of each planet: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity (my personal favorite, probably because the French horns have some great licks in this movement); Saturn, Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic. Pluto was discovered several years before Holst's death, but he had no interest in composing an additional movement, although in 2000, composer Colin Matthews was commissioned by the Halle Orchestra to compose a final movement entitled, "Pluto, the Renewer".

I could probably add 100 other pieces to this list, but I'll add links to just a few more that are worthy of inclusion. Happy listening!

The Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach
Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
The Minute Waltz by Frederic Chopin
Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy
The 1812 Overture by Petr Ilyich Tschaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Horn Concerto No. 3 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
La Donna e Mobile (from Rigoletto) by Giuseppi Verdi
Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (for an even more fun rendition, listen to The King's Singers' brilliant vocal version - and stay listening for their version of The Barber of Seville overture that follows)
The Typewriter and The Waltzing Cat by Leroy Anderson
Funny Cats' Duet by Gioachino Rossini
Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms
The Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert
Liebestraum by Franz Liszt
Tritsch-Tratsch Polka by Johann Strauss II
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Okay, that was more than a few - but it's still hardly scratching the surface of all the wonderful, accessible classical repertoire that's out there. So start listening!!

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