6 Imaginative Pieces Of Whimsical Classical Music

Whimsical Classical Music
Whimsical Classical Music

Whimsical Classical Music

1. ‘Dance of The Hours’ from ‘La gioconda’ by Amilcare Ponchielli

This enticingly playful composition comes from Act 3, Scene 2 of Ponchielli’s opera titled ‘La gioconda’, (The Joyful Girl). Ponchielli based his opera on the Victor Hugo play the ‘Tyrant of Padua’. (1835) 

The opera did not enjoy the success that this interlude, intended as an entertaining balletic dance eventually did.

Ponchielli was a composer based in Milan with such notable students as Puccini whose operatic works have endured far longer than the dozen operas his teacher composed.

One criticism of the operas of Ponchielli was that his musical creativity was wonderful but his libretti were formally weak.

‘Dance of the Hours’ is a tug of war between the forces of light and dark. It is a piece that is now more often performed as a single composition and featured in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’.

Interchanges between sections maintain a lightness and buoyancy that springs along effortlessly. Each new melody is beautifully constructed and almost immediately memorable.

When listening you can easily picture the dancers portraying the characters and evolving moods. It is delightful, charming and cleverly conceived.

2. ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from ‘Children’s Corner by Claude Debussy

This piano piece dates from 1908 and is the final miniature in the suite Debussy called his ‘Children’s Corner’. As you might expect Debussy dedicated this collection of pieces inspired by toys that come to life, to his daughter who was nicknamed Chouchou.

The ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ is not a trivial piece of music, instead, it is elegantly formed blending rhythmic elements from Ragtime with his unique gift for melody and colourful harmony.

What can go easily unnoticed is how Debussy ingeniously quotes from Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’ right in the middle of the cakewalk.

Even though the quote sounds like a joke Debussy was a young composer and admirer of Wagner but following the horrors of the First World War his sentiments changed and Debussy includes the Wagner quote with clear anti-German intent.

The awkward dance of the Golliwog is the immediate focus of the piece, and as the piece plays you can imagine the clumsy efforts of the unfortunate doll trying to move with purpose and charm and woefully failing.

3. ‘The Hall Of The Mountain King’ from ‘Peer Gynt Suite No.1’ by Edvard Grieg

This whimsical piece was inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s play of 1867, ‘Peer Gynt’. In the play, Peer Gynt is denied marriage to the girl he loves and so flees to the realms of the mountains.

Here he is captured by trolls and meets their King. Eventually, after a prolonged chase, the fortunate Peer Gynt escapes.

The theme of this work is incredibly well known and seems to capture audiences’ imaginations across the world whenever it is performed. It is an orchestral piece but exists in numerous arrangements.

One of the beguiling aspects of the music is the bassoon and basses that open the work in the enticing key of B minor. It’s dark but not threatening, impish and mischievous.

The theme passes through the orchestra gradually gathering speed until a forceful prestissimo finale is reached.

4. ‘Fossils’ from ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ by Camille Saint-Saëns

The Carnival of the Animals for me is one of the most marvellous pieces of 20th Century orchestral music. Saint-Saëns composed the suite of fourteen movements around 1886 following a failed concert tour of Germany in the previous year.

The fact that Saint-Saëns had endured a disastrous year spurred him to compose the Carnival of The Animals; and what a success it turned out to be. If the stories are to be believed even the composer remarked how much fun the piece was.

The scoring of the suite is interesting and perhaps not what one might expect for such a composition. As inventive as Saint-Saëns was his selection of instruments was clever. A pair of pianos take the lead role throughout the composition.

Alongside the pianos are two violins, viola, double bass, flute and piccolo, clarinet, glass harmonica and a xylophone. With this unique ensemble, Saint-Saëns summons each animal to centre stage with great style and panache.

‘Fossils’ is the twelfth piece in the set. If you listen carefully you can hear echoes of Saint-Saëns ‘Dance Macabre’ that also employs the xylophone so skilfully. There is all manner of hidden jokes and quotes in this lively piece that is an unfailing delight to listen to at every performance.

5. ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso” by WA Mozart

In 1786 WA Mozart had completed his superb comic opera titled ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, (K. 492). The librettist was one who Mozart had worked with before, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had written the libretti for an impressive twenty-eight operas.

Amongst the many operas Mozart composed in his brief lifetime, The Marriage of Figaro is viewed by many as his best. It is certainly one of the most performed of his operatic works and coupled with Mozart’s breath-taking music the comedy is compelling alongside the pure humanity of the work.

There are four Acts in the opera and ‘Non più andrai’, is performed by Figaro towards the conclusion of the opening act. As Mozart effortlessly portrays in his music, there is a sense of the comic in this aria.

Figaro is being somewhat cruel to Cherubino who has been found hiding in Count Almaviva’s wife’s private rooms. Instead of taking terrible revenge on Cherubino, the Count decides to send him to join a military regiment in Seville.

Figaro leaves no stone unturned in his mocking of Cherubino’s lamentable fate, calling him a ‘lustful butterfly’. 

Mozart chooses the bright key of C major for the aria. There is also a certain martial feel to the rhythm that is march-like underlying the unpleasant future that lays ahead for Cherubino.

6. ‘Hoe Down’ from Rodeo by Aaron Copland

This remarkable piece comes from a single movement ballet (Rodeo) Copland wrote in 1942. The ‘Hoe-Down’ is placed as the fifth movement following the ‘Saturday Night Waltz’.

What is so appealing about this whole ballet is how innovatively Copland fuses Irish and American folk songs into the movements. Hoe-Down incorporates an Irish melody ‘Gilderoy’, as well as a paraphrase of ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.

Other folk tunes appear too in this light, engaging and whimsical composition.

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