x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Classical crib sheet

Feature As another round of world-class concerts begins with the 2009 Abu Dhabi Classics series, you might feel like brushing up on your Mozart and revisiting some Strauss. Whet your appetite with our guide to the history behind the music.

Felix Mendelssohn.
Felix Mendelssohn.

Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No 1 by Edvard Grieg The instantly recognisable first flute notes of this shimmering piece, written by the Norwegian nationalist romantic Edvard Grieg, depict the rising of the sun over the Sahara desert, and the simple motif has been used in countless films and adverts. The suite was written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which was first staged in 1876, and the music went on to have a life of its own outside the literary work.

Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes by Richard Wagner One of Richard Wagner's least-known operatic works, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, is something of a departure, stylistically, for the composer. Nevertheless, it shows early hints of what was to come: the misty, throbbing strings, the resonant brass and the melodrama all precipitate elements of the Ring cycles - as does the five-hour running time. This, the overture - its most performed extract - is a rich piece of orchestration.

Libiamo (Brindisi) from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi In 1853, when this timeless work was first performed in Venice, opera was an art as much for the common people as the cognoscenti. Verdi was the toast of Italy and his most popular arias were sung on the streets. Among his eminently singable tunes, this short, waltzy duet from La Traviata, a loving toast from Alfredo to Violetta, stands out as one of the catchiest.

Les Toreadors from Carmen (Suite No 1) by Georges Bizet When the opera Carmen debuted at the Opera Comique in Paris in March of 1875, it was a flop. The realist subject (it was set in a cigarette factory in Seville) shocked the audience, and Bizet died just a few months later, never knowing the fame of his final opera. Les Toreadors, a Spanish-tinged march that evokes the puffed-out chests and proud chins of Seville's proud bullfighters, is one of the opera's best-known recurring melodies.

Symphony in A Major (First movement) by Felix Mendelssohn The swinging, dancing rhythms of this work are reminiscent of the folk music of Italy, through which the German composer Mendelssohn was travelling on a European tour when he composed his "Italian" symphony. In a letter to his sister, he described it as being "the jolliest piece that I have ever done", and its first performance, in London in 1833, was a huge success. This is a seminal symphonic work of Romantic music.

Nessun Dormer from Turandot by Giacomo Puccini "None shall sleep tonight," sings Calaf, the unknown prince, who awaits his fate at the hands of the beautiful but cold Princess Turandot. First performed in 1926, after Puccini's death, this aria, though used over and over again on adverts and movies, still has the power to make the hairs on your neck stand on end. It is also one of the hardest arias to pull off, with its extremely high range, leaving the audience entranced and in awe.

Symphony No 40 in G Minor (First movement) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart A prolific genius and child prodigy, Mozart had written 41 symphonies by the time he died at age 35, in 1791. No 40, which was completed in July 1788, is one of only two of his symphonies to be in a minor key, lending it a dark urgency and melancholy lyricism that makes it stand out from many of his lighter, prettier and, frankly, blander works. This showcases Mozart at the height of his powers.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major (Second movement) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart As one of Mozart's favourite instruments - he believes its timbre was close to the human voice - the clarinet was used to great effect in his symphonic works, but this concerto, and especially the second movements, transcends mere orchestration. A wonderfully expressive, gentle and profound piece, the concerto was written just weeks before his death for his friend, the clarinettist Anton Stadler, and in this context, the movement seems to speak of enlightenment and resolution.

The Emperor's Waltz by Johann Strauss the Younger Known in Vienna as the "Waltz King", Johann Strauss the Younger wrote more than 500 waltzes and other dances over his lifetime. The composition of this piece was inspired by the Emperor Franz Joseph's visit in 1889 to the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin. Its careful title and lack of a specific dedication allowed it to flatter both emperors, and it has gone on to become one of Strauss's most celebrated works.

Die Fledermaus, Overture by Johann Strauss the Younger The purposeful opening of the overture to this comic operetta, full of Austrian vim and vigour, was first heard in 1874 when the work premiered in Vienna. Containing the comic elements of a farce, the punchy speed of an adventure and the decorous lilt of a classic Strauss waltz, the overture encapsulates the action of the whole operetta, which pivots around a prince's ball. Like most fellow comic operas, the plot is silly and forgettable, but Strauss's vivacious music is immortal.

Fifth Symphony in C Minor (First movement) by Ludwig Van Beethoven The ominous, terrifying chords that open the great German composer's Fifth Symphony, written from 1804-08, lead into one of the stormiest - and best-known - works in musical history. With Europe in the midst of the Napoleonic wars and Beethoven suffering increasingly with deafness, one can only surmise the strength of feeling behind this legendary piece of music. This is the composer fully in the grip of his increasingly melancholic passions, creating a work that stirs the soul yet is still in possession of a cohesive classical structure. It never tires.
gchamp@thenational.ae