Tell Me a Story

…and/or ‘Show Me Something’

All music tells a ‘story,’ but that is in many cases very subjective, and everyone will hear that story differently. So-called ‘absolute music’ is just that, purely musical, with no intention of expressing anything but music. Think Brahms. That’s great, but there are also wonderful pieces that work a little differently.

Some pieces have a specific non-musical basis, taking their inspiration from legends, folk tales, novels, or even the composer’s own personal experience. Others use as the basis of their work physical things or places, parts of a whole that inspire individual movements, and from these sounds try to convey the essence of a thing. Check them out.

19th Century-

  • Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique– a love-drunk, drug-induced story told in five movements. As Leonard Bernstein says, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” A vivid, surprising work, even two centuries later.
  • Schumann’s Papillons, op. 2– a suite of piano pieces representing a masked ball, many of them dance-like movements, based on a book that involves brothers (twins?) making an attempt at wooing the same girl. There’s a quote at the top of this article from the composer about its ‘story’.
  • Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave or Hebrides overture– the young Mendelssohn is captivated by the Scottish landscape on his first of multiple visits to Scotland, and writes this magical overture.
  • Liszt’s Totentanz- for piano and orchestra, it’s something like a small piano concerto. The title means ‘dance of the dead’. It’s a paraphrase on the famous Dies Irae chant. The piano part is wildly innovative: percussive, splashy, aggressive, and the composer’s obsession with death comes through loud and clear.
  • Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– yup, you guessed it. Pictures… at an exhibition. Check out the article for the full story, but each movement represents a piece at the exhibition or the ‘promenade’ between them, and the composer’s use of pianistic color to convey qualities and personalities and feelings is exceptional.
  • Dvorak’s The Noon Witch– One of Dvorak’s settings of a child’s fairytale with which misbehaving children are threatened…
  • Dvorak’s The Water Goblin– never marry anything that lives underwater. But to be honest, these two are some of Dvorak’s most vivid compositions, and wonderfully evocative of the stories they represent.
  • Strauss’s Don Juan– The same infamous libertine from stage and film, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but in a quick 16-17 minute burst of wonderful color and excitement, and even, as you’d expect, some romance.
  • Rachmaninoff’s The Rock– “in which a young girl meets an older man during a stormy, overnight stop at a roadside inn on Christmas Eve. The man shares with her the story of his life, beliefs, and past failures, as a blizzard rages on through the night.” per Toronto Symphony program notes, linked in the article.
  • Sibelius’ Skogsrået or The Wood Nymph– another fairytale love (?) story, this time from Finland.

20th Century-

  • Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht– string sextet based on Richard Dehmel’s controversial poem of the same name. A woman is in love with a man, but has to break the news to him that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. Their long walk and the conversation are expressed in this highly emotional piece.
  • Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit– musical adaptations of three intensely vivid poems. There’s an underwater world that beckons to be discovered, a gallows standing alone in the dessert, and a sprite buzzing against the glass to get inside and cause a poor sleeping human some trouble.
  • Debussy’s La Mer– the ocean. Just listen. It’s exciting and evocative of the sea spray and the wind and the waves, just gorgeous music.
  • Honegger’s Pacific 231– it’s a train leaving the station.

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