This week’s honourable mention is “Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F major, op. 73” by Carl Maria von Weber, a German composer of the Romantic school. This piece is one of great importance in the clarinet repertoire, being representative of the range and achievements one can reach with this instrument. The third movement is especially joyful and fun, a great one to play to children and introduce them to classical music. It sounds right out of a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon.
Going back two centuries, at number 3 we have a Renascent composer: William Byrd, with his “Mass for five voices”, a sacred polyphonic piece. Although he was born and raised in the Anglican religion, his Mass for five voices (along with two others for three and four voices) is a liturgical work for the Catholic rite, Byrd having converted to Catholicism later on in life. This was done in a period of religious upheaval in England, Pope Pius V having declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic and excommunicating anyone that obeyed her. This meant that Catholic Mass was forbidden in England, and this is reflected in how the Masses were composed: small scale pieces, for quick and secretive performances; printed individually, for concealment purposes; undated, with no title pages and no printer named, to make them untraceable. Their simple composition and their background are very reminiscent of the early beginnings of Christendom, when people were having furtive gatherings to pray and praise God under the vigilant eyes of the Romans, and make these Masses a more personal listening, bringing one back to the roots of what it means to have a spiritual and sacred experience (listen here a great performance by The Tallis Scholars.)
The 20th century brings Dmitri Shostakovich at number 2, with another controversial work: his “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, particularly the “Adagio (Elegy) arranged for strings”. Written in the Romantic tradition, this is one of the most notorious operas, having been banned for almost thirty years by the Communist Party after an anonymous critical article in “Pravda” (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), supposedly written by Stalin himself. The criticisms were centred around its sexual content, Stravinsky considering it “lamentably provincial”, and its moral ambiguity of portraying the murderess in a sympathetic way. It wasn’t until the year 2000, that the original uncensored version was performed in Russia, and it has since become part of the standard repertory of the opera houses worldwide. This String Quartet is one of saddest and soul crushing piece of music that I have listened. Four minutes of beautiful sorrow and misery.
We’re finishing the week in a thundering tone, with the greatest composer of the classical era at number 1, namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with his “Symphony no. 41 in C major, K 551“, also known as the “Jupiter Symphony”. This is his last in a set of three symphonies that he composed during the summer of 1788, and is considered to be the greatest classical work. This was a very prolific period for him, as along these three major works, he also wrote three other piano pieces and a violin sonata. No. 41 is a traditional arrangement of the classical era, having four movements, the last one (“Molto Allegro”) being a grandiose finale, of tremendous power, consisting in a fugato that encompasses the five major themes of the work.
For an extremely interesting and informative analysis of the symphony and its various recordings, listen to this BBC Radio 3 record review by Martin Cotton.
Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of all the works curated by Clemency Burton-Hill in the book “Year of Wonder: Classical music for every day”. To enjoy the full catalogue of pieces proposed by the author along with her comments on the composers and the music itself, feel free to pick up her awesome book here (not affiliated, nor sponsored).