High Energy Classical Music
1. ‘Sabre Dance’ by Aram Khachaturian
In my recent articles, this single piece has made a record number of appearances. Not only is it perhaps the best-known piece that Katchaturian ever composed, but its energy, vitality, and compelling rhythmic drive make this a firm classical favourite amongst performers and audiences worldwide.
From Katchaturian’s little-known ballet ‘Gayane’, composed in 1942, this single work has become remarkably popular. In the ballet, the dancers are displaying their skills with sabres at an alarming speed.
Such is the pace of this music the dances are breathtaking if you can find a performance of the ballet. For me, there are echoes of the ‘Rite of Spring’ in this piece with a strong sense of ritualistic purpose presented by the repeating rhythms and insistent melody hammered out by the xylophones.
The form of the music is a straightforward ternary structure with the central section occupied by an Armenian folk tune. This brings a short but gentle contrast to the outer sections that have made this piece so famous.
2. ‘The William Tell Overture’ by Gioachino Rossini
The idea of shooting an apple off a young person’s head with a crossbow is likely to raise an eyebrow of even the most resolute of people. The third act of the opera is where this cruel challenge is put upon William Tell.
Gesler, the Austrian Governor of the Swiss Cantons is the man who gave Tell the ultimatum recognising as he did the love Tell had for his son Jeremy. As it turns out, Tell successfully shoots the apple leaving his son unharmed.
The troubles are not over for William Tell and Jeremy and in Act four events become even more entangled. The overture is commonly played at the opening of the opera but has over the decades become an established piece in its own right.
It is a hugely popular piece by Rossini who decided before he composed the opera that this would be his last. Rossini did not compose this overture, especially for the opera, and could never have imagined its popularity.
The original music Rossini recycled from an opera from fourteen years previously called ‘Elizabeth, Queen of England’. At the opening of the work, a lone cello sings a heartfelt melody that as the strings enter begins to build towards the evocation of the oncoming storm.
The pace gathers and the familiar melody that heralded the arrival of the Lone Ranger in the famous movies and series from the late 1930s.
3. ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from the ‘Bartered Bride’ by Bedrich Smetana
Under the tutelage of Franz Liszt, Smetana composed The Bartered Bride between 1863-1866. It is recognised nowadays as one of the most important operas to come from the pen of a Czech composer.
This is particularly important as up until the composition of this comic opera Smetena was known as a teacher more than a composer. Smetana worked swiftly on this piece composing the overture with remarkable fluency.
This, like many operatic overtures, has become a stand-alone orchestral piece. Czech traditional influences run through this opera with Smetana’s inventive use of dance forms including the Polka.
This swift dance arrives in Act three of the opera. Amidst the familiar themes of love tangles, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities, a circus arrives in town. The music for this section of the opera is amazing.
Smetana composes an almost perfect fusion of original ideas and traditional Czech dance music. The syncopation derives from a dance called a skocna with its infectious rhythms and blistering pace. Themes are introduced for each of the circus characters that arrive on stage in this riotous piece.
4. ‘Flight of The BumbleBee’ by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
A little like the ‘Sabre Dance’ by Katchaturian, this piece was a minor interlude in a far greater work. In this case, this incredibly famous and fast piece served as a break in his opera, ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’ (1899-1900).
As the title suggests, the music brilliantly depicts the haphazard flight of the adorable bumblebee. What happens at this point in the opera (end of Act III), is that Prince Gvidon Saltanovich becomes transformed into an insect by the mysterious and magical swan.
This transformation is so that he can go and visit his estranged father who has no idea that he is alive. It is not only the tempo of this music that gives it its energy but the flurries of rising and falling semi-quavers that dominate the initial motif.
There is a second motif that is based on an arpeggio figure that brings a delicate contrast to the initial ideas. The whole piece is very short, energetic, and motivational, remaining, as it does, a popular favourite within the orchestral repertoire.
5. ‘Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein
Perhaps better known for his electric score for WestSide Story, American composer Leonard Bernstein produced a glittering array of orchestral scores. This score dates from 1956. Bernstein adopted and adapted the Voltaire text of the same name with the assistance of Lillian Helman to use for his operetta.
Candide opened on Broadway in the year of composition and closed the following year. The critical response was not what Bernstein had hoped for but thankfully a recording was made of the initial performances and today the composition has received hundreds of performances.
There are distinct overtones of the popular operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan in this work that give it a light, witty and engaging presence.
The overture was created in the same year as the completed operetta. It begins with a fanfare that presents the material that powers the rest of the overture. In typical Bernstein fashion, no material is wasted.
Instead, he makes subtle transformations of his ideas and threads them together like a gifted tailor. In a little over four minutes, Bernstein presents us with the main thematic material he uses to fuel the entire operetta.
The orchestration is remarkable, colourful, and inventive. Energy levels are paramount throughout the overture in this spirited piece by one of America’s great musical exponents.