Thursday, March 30, 2017

More Classical Music for Kids

In yesterday's blog, I commented that I could have easily come up with 100 more pieces to add to my initial list of 12, but I only added 25. I am taking up my own challenge, and here are 75 more wonderful and worthy classical pieces that can be appreciated by music fans of all ages and experience levels.

Aaron Copland - Hoedown (from Rodeo), Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, A Lincoln Portrait. Copland's brilliant brass work, unexpected rhythms, and open fifth harmonies are among his trademarks. His music has such an American feel to it, and is often based on heavily American themes, such as "Hoedown", the folk tune base of "Appalachian Spring," and the western ballet "Billy the Kid". You can't help but tap your toes and hum along to his music.

Igor Stravinsky - The Firebird Suite. Much of Stravinsky's music has a very abstract, modern feel to it, and some of it, such as "Rite of Spring", has an almost violent feel. But "Firebird" has a more familiar-feeling melodic line, with the lovely, haunting, trilling flute melody handing off to the oboes, the strings, the clarinets, and then to various combinations of instruments, building in intensity and richness through the piece.

Sergei Prokofiev - Troika (from Lieutenant Kije)Peter and the Wolf . "Peter and the Wolf" is an obvious choice to include in a list of classical music for children, but I'm a huge fan of the "Troika" from the film "Lieutenant Kije." The rhythmic sleigh bells, sharp military motif in the trumpets, and swiftly moving string and piccolo lines give it an intensity and crispness that can only be Russian.

Jan Sibelius - Finlandia. The mysterious-sounding opening chords of this piece are intriguing, especially as they quickly resolve into a pretty, delicate melody, but later segue back into ominous chords, eventually giving way to another beautiful melodic section. The center portion of the piece was later rewritten by Sibelius to be a stand-alone piece, to which multiple words have been added, including an unofficial Finnish anthem and the popular hymn, "Be Still, My Soul".

Ralph Vaughn Williams - English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Greensleeves. Many of Vaughn Williams' compositions are based on folk songs and hymns, and these two pieces are examples of his rich and complex arrangements of often simple tunes, juxtaposing them with countermelodies or combining two tunes.

Percy Grainger - Lincolnshire Posy. Grainger's unexpected harmonies, and technique of playing a melody simply, then repeating it in a more complex orchestration, or adding a contrasting line underneath, all create a marvelous richness to the simple folks melodies on which this piece is based.

Maurice Ravel - Bolero. In manuscript form, "Bolero" looks like it should be an incredibly boring piece. It begins with a simple drum rhythm, followed by a simple solo flute tune, handing the tune over to the clarinet and then the bassoon while the flute continues with a monotone rhythm, the music ever-so-gradually building in volume and intensity while repeating the same simple melody. Eventually the saxophone and the brasses have a turn, then suddenly a pair of piccolos in an almost dissonant harmony, until at last the entire orchestra joins in on the same melody, yet with a brilliance and intensity that has the audience on the edge of their seats right up until the huge falling-down-the-stairs final chords, which provide the only tempo change in the whole entire piece.

Carl Orff - O Fortuna (from Carmina Burana). You may not recognize the name of this piece, but I guarantee you've heard it. Popular in movies and commercials, the chant-like Latin lyrics create a sense of mystery and nervous anticipation, and change suddenly from a quiet, intense whisper into a loud, multi-octave chord.

Dmitri Shostakovitch - Jazz Suite. I hesitated to include this piece, as some might debate that it is jazz rather than classical. However, for all its jazzy tunes and saxophone-heavy orchestration, it is in a genuinely symphonic setting. Much of Shostakovitch's music is less accessible and more difficult, but I find this suite to be easy on the ears and fun to listen to.

Ferde Grofe - The Grand Canyon Suite. There's a a braying donkey. How can you not include in this list a piece with the clip clops of a donkey's hooves and a stubborn bray when he doesn't want to move? Side note: If you want to tie in a great children's book to this piece, read Marguerite Henry's charming "Brighty of the Grand Canyon" and then listen to the Suite.

John Williams - Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Hymn to New England, Liberty Fanfare, March from 1941, The Cowboys Overture. Listening to music by Williams is like listening to music by 3 or 4 composers all at the same time, mainly because Williams lifts themes from plenty of other composers. But he does it so well that it's truly a tribute rather than outright theft. Each of these pieces has its own charm and paints a unique musical picture of its subject. I couldn't bring myself to eliminate any of these - very different from each other - pieces from this list.

Gustav Holst - Suite in E-flat. Like Vaughn Williams and Grainger, Holst takes simple folk songs and places them in complex and intricate settings, playing them against each other, inverting the melody and playing it against itself, and building layer upon layer of musical texture - and then returning to the original simple melody. Just breathtaking.

Giovanni Gabrieli - Canzona per Sonare No. 2, Canzon Primi Toni, Canzon Septimi Toni. As a brass player, I can't help but adore all of Gabrieli's works, particularly his antiphonal brass arrangements. As the organist of Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice, he took advantage of the unusual acoustics provided by the church's two choir lofts, which faced each other, often placing different groups of instruments or singers across from each other, plus a third group on a stage near the center of the church.

Johann Sebastian Bach - St. Matthew Passion, Air on the G String, Little Fugue in G Minor, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Ahhh, Bach. Really, what does anyone need to say about Bach? Listen to his stuff. All of it. I could have listed 100 pieces by Bach alone. Play anything by Bach for your kids and they'll get it.

Edward Elgar - Nimrod (from The Enigma Variations). Elgar dedicated the 14 "Enigma Variations" to his friends and family (including both his wife and himself). The ninth variation, entitled "Nimrod", a reference to an Old Testament patriarch described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord," is dedicated to Elgar's close friend Augustus Jaeger ("Jaeger" being the German word for "hunter"), who was also a music editor and provided Elgar with much-appreciated critiques of his works. A particularly solemn movement, it is often played at funerals and other solemn occasions.

Ludwig van Beethoven - The Consecration of the House Overture. Like Bach, I could have easily included dozens of Beethoven's compositions to this list, but I have limited myself. This particular overture has always been striking to me in terms of its majestic feel, particularly during the fanfare section. It was commissioned for and first performed at the opening of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Venice, and demonstrates plenty of theatrical drama.

Hector Berlioz - Hungarian March (from the Damnation of Faust). I happened to come across this piece for the first time when I was in high school, coincidentally at the same time that I was reading (or at least stumbling through) Goethe's Faust in the original German.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - A Little Night Music, Dies Irae from Requiem in D Minor, Overture to Don Giovanni, Rondo alla turca. Yeah, just listen to all of it. (See also, Bach.)

Georg Frideric Handel - Zadok the Priest, Hallelujah Chorus (from The Messiah). "Zadok the Priest" was written for the coronation of King George II and has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch since. And everything from "The Messiah" is brilliant, but having listened to quite a bit of it, my kids still love the Hallelujah Chorus the best of all.

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This piece for piano and orchestra is actually 24 variations on Niccolo Paganini's last Caprice for violin, and is divided into three sections which correspond to the three movements of a concerto. Funny story which may or may not be child-appropriate: prior to the premiere performance, Rachmaninoff (who was performing the piano part), confessed to a friend that he was nervous about playing the extremely difficult 24th variation. The friend convinced the normally teetotalling Rachmaninoff to have a glass of creme de menthe before the performance to steady his nerves. The performance went so well that Rachmaninoff took to having a glass before every performance of the Rhapsody, causing him to nickname the 24th variation the "Creme de Menthe Variation."

Johann Pachelbel - Canon in D. You know this one. It's in practically every commercial ever made, from shampoo to jewelry to banking services. You can also sing "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" along with it. Try it. It's fun!

Aram Khatchaturian - Sabre Dance. From the opening timpani to the xylophone in octaves, this dance practically grabs you by the throat and shakes you. The dance is from the final act of Khatchaturian's ballet, "Gayane," and the dancers actually do dance with sabres during the number.

Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra. Best known for the use of the fanfare (entitled "Sunrise") in the opening scene of the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," this piece was actually a tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's novel of the same name.

Isaac Albeniz - Sevilla (from Suite Espanola). Suite Espanola was originally written in 1886 for solo piano, in honor of the Queen of Spain. However, a number of the movements were transcribed for solo guitar or multiple guitars, and I find that the guitar arrangement captures the Spanish feel better than the piano version, especially of this particular movement.

Alberta Ginastera - Danza Final (from Estancia Dances). Argentine composer Ginastera's ballet is composed of four movements: The Land Workers, Wheat Dance, the Ranch Hands, and Final Dance, each with its own personality. The first and fourth movements both depict a malambo dance, the fourth movement being at an almost frenetic tempo

Gabriel Faure - Pavane. Originally written for solo piano, but also arranged by the composer for small orchestra and optional chorus, I find this flute choir arrangement to be particularly haunting and lovely.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff - Procession of Nobles, Capriccio Espagnol. The "Procession" is from Rimsky-Korsakoff's "opera-ballet" (the title role is danced rather than sung) entitled "Mlada." The opera (ballet?) was not much of a success, but the elegant "Procession" has become part of standard band literature. In his 5-movement "Capriccio Espagnol," Rimsky-Korsakoff carefully used the unique timbre of each instrument, including notes in the score for the use of specific techniques and articulations, to create the exact sound he desired.

If I keep adding notes to each of these pieces, I'll be here forever, so I'll leave the rest of the list for you to discover on your own. If you find one that you (or your kids) particularly like, do a little background research. There are interesting stories behind every composer and every piece!

Mendelssohn - Midsummer Night's Dream
Giuseppi Verdi - Triumphal March (from Aida)
Franz Schubert - Marche Militaire
Albert Ketelbey - In a Persian Market
Henry Purcell - Trumpet Tune and Air
Jeremiah Clarke - Trumpet Voluntary
Engelbert Humperdinck: Evening Prayer (from Hansel and Gretl)
Gioacchino Rossini - The William Tell Overture
Offenbach - Can Can Music
Amilcare Ponchielli - The Dance of the Hours (from La Giaconda)
Julius Fucik - Entrance of the Gladiators
Luigi Boccherini - Minuet
Emile Waldteufel - The Skater's Waltz
Giacomo Puccini - Nessun Dorma (from Turandot)
Johann Strauss - Radetsky MarchThe Blue Danube Waltz
Antonin Dvorak - Largo (from The New World)
Franz Schubert - Unfinished Symphony
Gordon Jacob - William Byrd Suite
Robert Russell Bennett - Suite of Old American Dances
Bedrich Smetana - The Bartered Bride Polka
Morton Gould - American Salute
Richard Wagner - The Ride of the Valkyries

According to my count, these additions should bring the list to an even one hundred, but just in case I miscounted, here's one last recommendation: Gustav Holst's delightful Song of the Blacksmith, complete with anvil solo.

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