Melodic Muses

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the words “Classical Music”?

Ballroom dancing?… Posh hotel music?…or maybe even Samsung ringtones. Whatever it may be, I’m sure a part of you has always thought it rather mundane to listen to, and for good reason. Only a handful can sit through and appreciate an orchestra, if not one seasoned in music. Needless to say, many of these compositions and composers have the most intriguing stories behind them. Let’s hope that after this read, you find yourself drawn to this fascinating world, if not at least an insight into the backstories of some of the most revolutionary compositions!

Sorrow and Scrawl

In the symphony of life, even the greatest composers can’t escape the drama of love, passion and the occasional plot twist. Let’s embark on a crescendo of captivating stories, starting with one that twirls around. In the world of classical music, where powdered wigs were all the rage, Beethoven was busy making waves in his music and love life. Now, we’ve all had crushes. Only he had a flair for turning them into musical legacies. Now, I’m sure some of you revel in the guilty pleasures of Romance fiction, maybe even between a teacher and his pupil. Only unlike us, Beethoven actually lived it. Like every unrequited crush, this one needs a heroine, her name being – Therese. 

Enchanted by her beauty, he decided to serenade her. Only, her pianoforte was rather questionable. Well aware of her average skills, he decided to make a simple yet catchy tune, determined to help her play. Caught in the whirlwind of affairs, he proposed to Therese. (We got to give it to him for taking action!). Only, Therese wasn’t interested in a duet for life, much to his inner maestro’s scorn. What did he do next? Well, his petty side took over, and he turned that serenade into a musical nightmare for beginner players (ergo, Therese didn’t stand a chance). The first part- a breeze. The ending was a tricky tangle of notes manifesting his romantic frustration; only we’d ever heard the beginning few notes. The plan was to name the piece “Für Therese”, literally translating to “For Therese”. Only fate decided to foil his plans yet again. Thanks to a hasty transcriber, coupled with his chaotic penmanship, “Für Therese”  became “Für Elise”. 

So there you have it, the curious case of Beethoven’s musical mishap where the composer’s emotions played a duet with his creation. Now, every time you hear that nasal Samsung ringtone, you might be reminded of your crush…or maybe even an unrequited love. (do remember to take action!) 

Obstinate and Operatic

Of course, for every hardworking tortoise, we need a hare, and no one embodied that spirit more than our beloved Austrian virtuoso- Mozart. In the grand opera of Mozart’s life with late-night revelries and wicked humour, here is one such tale, otherwise popularly known as the Don Giovanni Overture. Like many of us, he emulated his daily life stories with drinking, gambling and a lot of postponing. But unlike most of us, only he could survive doing his work at the last hour. Many would say, “He never touched any problem without solving it to perfection and that he wrote music like the inner beauty of the universe was revealing”, but even these fancy words do not do him justice regarding his raw musical prowess. For many opera composers, the last thing they write is the overture. I mean, what could possibly be easier than dashing off a short piece based on catchier tunes you’ve written, right? Mozart, however, took this to a whole other level. The day before the opera, he had enjoyed a drink with his friends and only had the night left to whip up an orchestral overture, which was to be the grand opening piece to the opera the following day in front of the archbishop.

Fueled by his spirits and inspiration, he retreated to his artistic sanctuary. His wife made him some punch to keep him company and told him tales of Aladdin’s lamp, Cinderella and whatnot to keep him awake while he quilled away everything in his head. His story- that of a notorious seducer, Don Giovanni. The opera explores love, morality and the consequences of people’s actions and revolves around his amorous escapades. The next day, the orchestra performed this overture for the very first time, and it went on to become one of his greatest hits! This particular overture was variously charming and terrifying and breathed life into the story’s alluring, alarming combination of rape, murder and a supernatural twist at the end, making it a masterpiece which the public and performers have adored for generations. 

Nocturnes and Negligence 

Of course, this blog would never be complete without our eloquent Polish composer- Chopin, notoriously known for ‘chopping’ your fingers off if you dared to play any of his compositions. Chopin (personally, my favourite composer) was known for his bewitching melodies and delicate ornamentation. His music is deeply connected to the Romantic era and often reflects a sense of emotional intensity and introspection. He didn’t just compose sounds; he created worlds. Chopin once said- “I tell my piano the things I used to tell you” Despite his prodigal musicality, he was a timid person and would only perform for a small crowd, mostly upper-end Polish parlours. Most of his pieces were transcribed after his death when they were all unearthed on a dusty shelf beside his instrument. He composed over 230+ compositions, many of which he did not release but simply stacked away, presuming they were poorly made.

Alas, like many of that time, he died at the tender age of 39 from tuberculosis, having suffered from poor health his entire childhood. But moving on to happier things, Chopin was known for creating music from simply  ‘thin air’. One such story goes that he was invited to a royal Polish house to train their daughter, who demanded a piece that had never been composed before. Her nimble dog, who was busy chasing its tail, caught his eye and was the muse to one of his most entrancing pieces- The Minute Waltz or Le Petit Chien (literally translating to ‘little dog’). The piece was simply called Minute Waltz due to its miniature size (not because you have to play it in a minute, although that hasn’t stopped people from trying) and became one of the great waltzes of the Romantic century.

When he was 20 years old, Chopin left Warsaw and travelled to Vienna. Shortly afterwards, the Polish November uprising broke out, and the Russian oppression made it difficult to return home, although he wanted to support the insurgence and be with his family. His father advised him against returning and thought he could serve his country better with music rather than with a gun. So young Chopin, torn between familial duty and his dream of fame, chose to go to Paris, where he spent most of his life and became one of the most influential composers of the time, vastly known for his nocturnes, which was an expression of poetry, emotion, depth and delicate nuances. After battling chronic diseases for most of his younger life and not being able to receive the proper treatment, this young maestro took his last breath while the Polish anthem was being sung to him, and Mozart’s most famous- Requiem in D was played at his funeral. It was the most fitting end to a revolutionary composer.

Gâteau and Giddiness 

It’s finally the time to enjoy dessert, and bringing it to us is none other than our French composer- Debussy. Golliwog’s Cakewalk is the last of the six movements in the ‘Children’s Corner’ and was inspired and written by Debussy for several reasons. To break it down, he mainly had three: his younger daughter’s love for golliwogs, ragtime and jazz, and Wagner’s music.

Cakewalk (unlike the idiom) refers to a dance in which African-American slaves mocked the dances of their white owners with pompous parading and grotesque elegance. The plantation owners at the time were the judges and would watch this performance and choose the victor by a process of elimination, the prize being- a piece of cake. This piece paints a picture of a ridiculous doll trying to dance with all kinds of clumsy movements, high kicks, falling, getting back up, and twirling along with other antics. The two primary melodies of the piece interweave throughout, first separately and then together, almost creating a jazz-like atmosphere. Alongside the main tune, it also features some other light sounds, such as bird calls, which emulate the animals surrounding the dolls and the children playing with them. Each piece in the Children’s corner is dedicated to a different figment of his daughter’s imagination. 

Another interesting theory is that this piece is said to intentionally mock Wagner as a way of sneering and laughing at his romanticism, as after WW1, he had become increasingly nationalistic and anti-German to the point of literally calling himself Claude de France. He almost emulated Wagner’s style of playing, followed by quickly changing notes to portray the sound of laughter. So what is it? Is it the portrait of a doting father, a jazz enigma or an anti-German sentiment? Well, at the end of the day, it all depends upon how you perceive it- and that’s precisely what classical music does to your soul. A simple tune can evoke a myriad of emotions and memories varying from person to person. While one melody may symbolise the happiest moment in someone’s life, it may resonate with a doomsday call to another. 

Classical music possesses the unique ability to stir up memories, much like a pebble hitting the bottom of a river, bringing forth the mud and gravel below. Its depth and clarity can unlock doors you never knew even existed. So, through this blog, I hope I was able to transfer, daresay, a small amount of passion and maybe even spark an interest in classical music within you.

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