Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
The first time I was ever aware that there are such things as topical programs to orchestral music, I was in fifth grade. Our music teacher told us just to listen and try to figure what we were listening to. I was bewitched by the piece, and though I can’t remember what I wrote back in the day, I knew I had heard it at home but never asked what it was. We were told it was Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt Suite. Then we were to listen to it again, and I wondered how I could ever have thought it to be anything else!
Listening to this piece of symphonic poetry – music describing a topic – changed my entire attitude as to listening to music. The same teacher brought us Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana’s fantastic piece “The Moldau”, describing the river’s journey from its cold and warm springs in the woods through the Czech landscape to the city of Prague.
Just listen how the flutes imitate bubbling springs and brooks and then reach the river theme!
We enjoyed “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev. And the same music teacher made us listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastorale” with its musical thunderstorm and to Krzysztof Penderecki’s „Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima“. Heavy stuff for fifth and sixth-graders, for sure. But certainly an eye-, umh, rather an ear-opener.
Our musical lessons were not optional in school. They were a must for everybody until ninth grade. We were taught how to read sheet music and to write rhythm dictates, to figure the sonata form of a symphony’s first movement as well as rondos and recurring themes. We also sang – international folk songs, gospel music, and art songs. I had grown up with mostly classical music at home. We listened because we liked the sound. But these lessons were something else. I heard the art of composition for the first time.
Music has kept playing a big part in my life. Symphonic poetry still speaks to my heart intensely. Listen to Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade” and imagine Sinbad’s travels and other tales of 1001 Nights. Or to French composer Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” – it makes you dream of the seaside, I promise.
What I became aware of, thanks to my husband’s lead, is that to this day even our very best rock musicians are creating similar art, based on the traditions of symphonic poetry. My absolute favorite piece in that realm is doubtless Deep Purple musician Jon Lord’s “Durham Concerto”. It begins with the cathedral at dawn and guides the listener through a busy day until a nocturn. It features a Hammond organ and Northumbrian pipes, and you will find so many familiar elements of all kinds of musical eras in it. Just listen in, if you like:
Come to think of it, I should do this more often again. Sit and listen to a piece of symphonic poetry. Close my eyes and immerse in the images the sounds evoke. Meditate on the beauty of music and take that as a comfort into a world that currently seems to be upside down.