One category we tend to classify music by is the emotion that it expresses. One might want to classify a certain piece as happy or sad based on the piece’s tempo or tonality. Pieces in a major key are often thought to be happier, while those in a minor key played at slow speed are more likely perceived as sad.
Still, pieces written in an atonal style might be considered angry, frightening, or to express no recognizable emotion at all. But some pieces actually look at the feeling of happiness or at least aspire for the feeling of joy, happiness, and harmony. And some of these pieces, while named after happy things, may not actually sound like what we envision to be happy. Here are five pieces that make reference to joy both in theme and in message.
Classical Music about Happiness
- “Jupiter the Bringer of Jolity” from The Planets, 1916- Gustav Holst
Holst designed The Planets as a suite of astrological expressions; that is, he devoted each piece to the mystical and spiritual qualities of each planet. Some descriptions are clearly linked to their Roman roots: for example, Mars is the bringer of war and Mercury is the winged-messenger. Others, like Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity, bear a more esoteric description. The piece is filled with powerful brass power and dynamic drive, almost reminiscent
of the regal status of Jupiter with his lightning bolt among the rest of the gods. But there is also a second theme, one that is more sad and nostalgic. This is the theme that is frequently played at weddings, and while it may not have a tonality everyone might consider “happy,” it is certainly an emotional tune and expresses the more subtle sentiments felt during a celebration.
- “The Happy Farmer”- Franz Schubert
From Schumann’s collection Album für die Jugend, “The Happy Farmer” is an iconic theme that finds itself in popular media and children’s musical literature. The song makes an appearance in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy is swept up by the hurricane. It is a recognizable melody that pianists and string players may recognize if they were trained in the Suzuki method. The collection, translated to English as “Album for the Young,” consists of 43 short pieces. Schumann originally composed these pieces for his young daughters.
- Largo al Factotum (Make Way for the Factotum)- Rossini
This aria, from Rossini’s opera comedy The Barber of Seville, is simply about a man who is happy with his work and his life. A “factotum” in defined today as some sort of employee who does different kinds of work. While the protagonist Figaro is indeed a barber, he sings about his service to the city and also engages in a variety of tasks for the Count Almaviva, who seeks to marry Rosina.
“What a merry life,
what gay pleasures
for a barber
Ah, bravo Figaro,
bravo, bravissimo, bravo!”
While the piece is comical and joyous, it is technically demanding and is an artistic achievement for any baritone.
- “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah, 1741- George Friedrich Handel
English composer George Friedrich Handel is known for “Water Music” and the beloved oratorio “Messiah.” The Messiah oratorio from which the “Hallelujah Chorus” comes is frequently performed during Christmas time, as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. While the original context of the piece is religious, it is a well-known melody played during celebration scenes in movies and videos and even during real-time events.
While Handel had extensive experience in Italian opera, the public was no longer interested in this genre. Handel himself was in struggling to make ends meet with his finances, and he was almost on the brink of going to debtor’s prison. With an opportunity from local charities to write a piece for a local benefit concert, he took the English libretto of colleague Charles Jennen and wrote an entire oratorio in less than a month. The initial performance in Dublin was a great success, and over time, the piece became well-known throughout Western music.
The structure of Handel’s oratorio is divided into three parts: the old testament prophecies speaking of the coming Messiah, the birth of the infant Jesus, and finally the return of the King who “shall reign forever and ever.” As the performance is an oratorio and not an opera, there is no staging involved in the drama. Unlike Handel’s other oratorios, there are no named characters and no dialogues; the entire piece is simply a reflection and expression of joy of God’s relationship to humanity.
- Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 – Ludwig van Beethoven
With a finale based on the lyrics to Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy (Ode an die Freude),” the performance was the first major choral symphony ever composed. The setting of the piece, with its large orchestration, length of over an hour, and incorporation of voices marks the symphony as one of Beethoven’s greatest work and major transition of Western musical culture into the Romantic era.
Even though the piece begins and returns to the key of D minor throughout, the piece finishes on a major tonality, erupting with joy. The first three movements are played by the full orchestra, but this final movement brings in the choir and Schiller’s lyrics to the stage together with the orchestra.
“Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.”
After completing the first draft, Beethoven spent ten tiresome years revising his composition. By the time he was finished, he was already completely deaf. The story often goes that when the crowd applauded, one of the performers had to signal to Beethoven to turn around and see the accolades. The piece has been celebrated from then on in various forms. The distinct choral melody has been used historically in various circumstances, such as representing the National Anthem for a divided Germany during the Olympics between 1956 and 1968. It has also been used for the hymn tune “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” which borrows its lyrics from a poem by the Reverend Henry Van Dyke.