Feuds, Dreams and Drama: The best stories behind classical music
By TJ Wilkshire
Every great masterpiece has a great story behind it – in fact some classical works have a backstory as dramatic and thrilling as the music itself! From dreaming of the devil, to Nazi propaganda, we take a deep dive into a few of the more infamous tales, to uncover how some of the best pieces came to exist.
#Violin Sonata in G Minor or Devil’s Trill Sonata (1713)
From poetry to artwork to cinema and beyond, dreams have inspired masterpieces; think of Poe’s The Raven, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and Nolan’s film Inception.
While an artist waking up inspired isn’t new, artists being haunted into creation always makes for an interesting story. Such is the case with Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G Minor. Famously known as the Devil’s Trill Sonata, the piece came about after Tartini dreamt he made a deal with the devil for his soul (Dorian Grey style). After handing his violin over, the devil played a sonata so beautiful and enchanting that Tartini was left breathless and woke up, vowing to recreate what he had heard. After putting quill to parchment Tartini came up with this spectacular piece, a fiendishly difficult challenge for even the most accomplished of performers. Although Tartini considered The Devil’s Trill his best composition, he always felt it never quite compared to the flawless masterpiece he heard the Devil play in his dream.
#Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
The French composer Hector Berlioz simply wanted something he couldn’t have – the affection of an actress by the name of Harriet Smithson. After watching Smithson perform as Ophelia in Hamlet, Berlioz was head over heels and wrote her a detailed letter outlining his feelings. However, Smithson rejected his advances. Berlioz’s vision of Smithson as the perfect woman (beautiful yet unattainable) inspired him to compose a symphony that depicts an artist constantly haunted by a muse – though, sources suggest he was also high on opium at the time of composing. The symphony premiered in 1830, but it wasn’t until 1832 that Smithson heard Symphonie Fantastique and thought she might be the inspiration. The two met and finally married in 1833. Unfortunately the marriage was an unhappy one and the two divorced several years later.
#Les préludes (‘Preludes' or ‘The beginnings’)
Liszt’s Les préludes is a beautiful composition, created as a “symphonic poem” about beginnings and the struggles of life, with a rolling melody of strings and cellos that build to a formidable triumph of brass and percussion. However, decades after the composer’s death, the history of the work became darker. Often pieces of music have been used in such a way that our association with them shifts to something the composer never intended. For example, because of the film Apocalypse Now, when most of us hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries we associate it with the Vietnam War. Similarly German’s associate Liszt’s work with Adolf Hitler. Les préludes was used as Nazi propaganda during World War II when announcing the Third Reich’s latest victories on their news bulletins. The triumphant brass and percussion cued the announcement "Das Oberkommando der Wehrmacht gibt bekannt..." or “The high command of the armed forces announces…” After the war, and as a result of its militaristic use, Les préludes was banned from public performance.
#Symphony No.96 (1791) and No.102 (1794)
What’s more dramatic than an unrequited love story? We’d say an audience dodging a falling chandelier in a concert hall! Hadyn’s Symphony No. 96 is nicknamed the ‘Miracle’ symphony. The story goes that during the premiere a chandelier fell from the ceiling of the concert hall mid-performance. However most sources agree that the occasion wasn’t actually that exciting, that Hadyn’s biographer was misinformed, and that in fact the drama occurred at the premiere of Symphony No.102 in King’s Theatre, Haymarket. During an encore of the symphony’s finale the chandelier crashed. However, everyone was so intently listening and had made their way forward towards the stage that the space was vacant and no one was injured.
#The Rite of Spring (1913)
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a dramatic masterpiece – the irregular musical energies and abstraction of Russian folk tunes make this work buzz with a frenetic virtuosity you can’t help but get swept up in. The ballet and orchestral work created in 1913 is presented in two parts ‘Adoration of the Earth’- a pagan celebration of Spring, and ‘The Sacrifice’, wherein a young woman dances herself to death. The plot behind the music in itself is dramatic and thrilling, but sometimes fact is more interesting than fiction.
The premiere of The Rite of Spring at the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was a riot (and we mean that in the most literal sense). Heckling from the audience began from the very beginning of the performance – they became so loud that the ballet dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra and Stravinsky himself fled backstage. A brawl followed (there’s even some witnesses who say someone was challenged to a dual) and police were called. So, what caused all the fuss? Was it the music, a turning point of class conflict, or the choreography? There are so many accounts that point in different directions we may never know.
#Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47 (1937)
The year is 1937 and political repression, famine and forced labour camps plague Soviet Russia. Following his condemned opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich set out to compose a piece that both appeased the masses and complied with Soviet Russian sentiments – this was a time when artists went missing when their work fell out of favour with government officials.
With its bold opening followed by gentle, teetering strings, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 is an intense musical journey from the get-go. Some hear the symphony as a compliance with Soviet Russian sentiments while others hear the composer’s passive-aggressive intentions (a kind of ‘screw you’ to Soviet officials). With one friend shot and another arrested, it’s fair to say that Shostakovich was being careful with his musical intentions and any political messages would be deeply hidden between the notes.