Tone Poems, Overtures, Suites & One Swell Little March

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B. Gaskill


· Adoration, praise, and thanksgiving,

· Majestic beauty and splendor; resplendence,

· A state of rejoicing triumphantly; exulting…

· All of the above

We’ll not be trolling the late 20th century’s concert hall experimentation with non-musical sounds; that decades-long exploration of the tonal regions of angst didn’t generate anything that would work here. For years, generous concert goers have been exposed to new works in the modern music idiom, in much the same spirit that Mom made us swallow bitter medicine because “it was good for us.”

We’ve been living through a rather strange fad, one that replaced melody with sonorities; that indulged dramatic excursions from tonality and beauty; and that all-too-often drove away audiences with its wrenching displays of ugliness-on-parade. In fact, some of the premiered works were so horrendously difficult to perform, yet so brilliantly executed, that our applause was like the professional praise a medical colleague might confer on the surgical team that has just rescued a serial killer from the jaws of death. Are we entitled to wonder – All that effort was for what, exactly?

Am I being unfair?

I and my fellow music lovers have paid our dues – all those hours upon hours over the years fidgeting and looking at our watches.

This Guide to Glory in music is our reward.

In fact the romantic sensibility is reasserting itself. Beauty, tonal drama and splendor could not forever be denied. In fact, fewer “unlistenable” new works of atonal modernism are included in the typical concert program. More exciting still: a new generation of modern composers is actually starting to write melody again. Please note – I’m not putting down musical experimentation, as such, far from it. Music will always benefit from new sonorities and modes of musical expression. In the last half century or more, we’ve gained much from an extension of the range of expression and the reach of musical language. Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Adams, for example, might not have written such striking, dramatic, and often truly beautiful music without breaking the mold with the older musical syntax.

But enough of my kvetching – Here is the case for glorious music in a nutshell:

Whenever a musical performance engages the full palate of an orchestra, there is one particular thread of music that, when executed with passion, energy and fidelity to its animating spirit, brings audiences to their feet, asking for more.

That is the glorious thread.

My list of ten is not a “top ten” list. Any gathering of music lovers can readily generate other lists of 10 orchestral gems in this vein with little overlap – and I hope you actually do. My order is arbitrary, no ranking implied or intended. The aim of this little project is to introduce exploring listeners to one particularly rewarding musical thread, the one that when followed unfailingly answers the question – Why listen to this stuff?

Consecration of the House – Overture (1822)

By Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sometimes this gem has been dismissed as a minor piece by a towering composer. I think it is much more. This is Beethoven channeling Handel and generating glory. If you think of the heavy footed-glories of the 9th Symphony, the Consecration of the House Overture is a lighter-footed, more propulsive and seductively charming example of glorious music. The joyful contrapuntal energy in the fugal allegro, alone (with its bassoons and brass), transcends anything that Hayden ever managed. This is no piece to be mailed-in, or recorded by performers who haven’t been caught up in its spirit.

YouTube Sample

Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra; Zoltán Kocsis

[Where provided, these are YouTube links are just for the flavor, not as performance recommendations.]

Helios – Overture (1902)

By Carl Neilson (1865-1931)

Just imagine a dramatic sunrise over the Aegean Sea, filtered through Neilson’s Nordic esthetic. This music unfolds like a glowing ice flower, a distant, noble heat, aching beauty. Neilson’s overture tracks more than nature here – it makes its own glory.

YouTube Sample –

Conductor: Niklas Willén
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Overture (1868)

By Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

The Meistersinger Overture exuberantly opens a light-hearted operatic account of the Master-singers Guild during the German Renaissance.

Perhaps because of the composer’s choice of subject and setting, this is the rare Wagnerian music that entirely escapes the darker Wagnerian sensibilities that inhabit (weight down) any glory that might crop up within the mythic operas for which the composer is best known.

From Wagner’s heavy mythic corpus we can pluck a few examples. Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture (c 1845) is another brilliant exercise of music-as-glory. Yet that Overture from Wagner’s opera about the eponymous minstrel knight, is an example of glorious heavy lifting. Not so for Die Meistersinger: In this, Wagner has incarnated lightness of spirit itself.

Don Juan – Tone Poem (1888, 1889)

By Richard Strauss (1894-1949)

Strauss’s Don Juan is propelled and defined by the single most uplifting musical theme the composer ever wrote. This tone poem was written at age 24. In the figure of Don Juan, the composer has chosen to center on one of literature’s most celebrated womanizers. Not to worry.

From the San Francisco Symphony concert notes by Michel Steinberg.

“The direct source, [of young Strauss’s inspiration] is an unfinished verse play from 1844 by … Nicolaus Lenau.” … [In this version], it is the nobleman’s son who appears to avenge his father. It is a fight that Don Juan could easily win, but he does not care to: “fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark”. One of the most thrilling silences in all music is followed by a long chord of A-minor, violins making a tremulous descent, two trumpets cutting in with a chillingly dissonant F. The phrase of passionate entreaty is reversed to limp defeated descent, violas emit a last shudder, and a career is over.”

Like his contemporaries, Strauss absorbed the modern angst and it shows even here. Yes, this brilliant composition carries an early-modernist sense of the flawed hero, but there is so little ballast. The vigorous young Strauss simply will not allow his music to smother the sense of guilt-free, glorious heroic striving. It is an exuberance undimmed. In a single theme carried by the French horn – appearing and reappearing in this tone poem- the very musical essence of glory is asserted and reasserted.

Taken as a whole, Strauss’s Don Juan transcends text and program…as all great music does.

YouTube Sample

Joann Falletta, the Texas Festival Orchestra

En Saga – Tone Poem (1892-1902)

By Jean Sibelius (1885-1957)

Lest you are thinking that glorious music is limited to the major key signatures, consider this dramatic gem. En Saga begins and ends in a minor key. En Saga is quintessential Sibelius.

This early tone poem shows that the Finn’s great composer’s musical imagination is powerfully operating from the very beginning of a long career.

When Sibelius’s music gives a voice to Finnish heroic nationalism, he also gives eternal life to something deeper and more universal in the human condition. In the urge for freedom from the Russian domination and the mythic sensibilities of the far north we hear something that calls to us out of time itself. Sibelius began En Saga’s composition shortly after his wedding. Although he was steeped in traditional national poems and songs, there is no program. As he later put it, “En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works. I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it.” Bear in mind that in 1902 when the work reached its final orchestral form, Sibelius was seventeen years old. From the beginning of the piece there is a pulse, a sense of movement, purpose and place. In the hands of a genius like Sibelius, nationalism is an uplifting universal aspiration. Through this composer we are all Finns.

My pick for the best recording to date is the one done by the Finnish conductor/composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And yes, a standing ovation is in order.

Hungarian March / “Rákóczi March” (1730 from The Damnation of Faust)

By Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz has written some truly glorious music, but most of those passages are too well embedded for an illustrative, standalone example. For example the Berlioz Requiem (1837 – Grande Messe des Morts) – involves monumental forces, and lasts about an hour and a half. The Sanctus is a section of truly extraordinary beauty and glory. Here I’ve settled on this brisk, completely uplifting little march from The Damnation of Faust. Somehow, of all passages from Berlioz’s large works, this little gem managed to smartly step out of the shadows.

You Tube Sample

Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944)

By Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

This is probably the most widely performed and beloved of the 10 pieces I’ve selected here. Almost everyone has heard Aaron Copland’s treatment of the Shaker Tune, Simple Gifts within the body of this 25 minute work, which composed originally for the Martha Graham Ballet. The Suite was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. I have never tired of it.

YouTube Sample

Suite from “The Sea Hawk” (1940)

By Eric Korngold (1897-1957)

Eric Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy, a young talent whom Gustav Mahler recognized as a “musical genius”. As an adult composer, Korngold wrote in the romantic vein throughout his creative career, swimming against the modernist tide. And as a Hungarian Jew during the a1930’s, he was almost overrun by the growing anti-Semitic tide.

Korngold relocated to the USA just before the expansion of Hitler’s Greater Reich absorbed his homeland. By that time he had composed several major symphonic and operatic works. As he later put it, the new commission to score the music for the American film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, “saved my life.”

Eric Korngold became an American citizen in 1943. He is considered one of the fathers of American film music. [Footnote – Don’t think for a moment that the romantic music tradition died out during the modernist-atonal fad – just follow the Korngold migration thread from Europe to Hollywood.]

I remember a time that if you confessed to liking Tchaikovsky’s melodic music, you were a lowbrow philistine. Thankfully as the modernist fad abates, Peter Tchaikovsky is respected for the genius he was; and Eric Korngold’s orchestral works (including six operas) are beginning to show up in the concert halls. The entire Sea Hawk Suite is widely available, having been recorded at least five times.

YouTube Fanfare from the Sea Hawk

Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

By George Gershwin (1898-1937)

(…as brilliantly orchestrated by Ferde Grofé)

Sadly, George Gershwin died in his prime -at 39- from a brain tumor. His Rhapsody in Blue is one of the earliest – and by far the most successful – full scale orchestral works that combines the jazz idiom with formal classical-romantic composition. This is a distinctly American voice and a glorious piece of music is there ever was one.

“Heroes’ Suite” (1990-1998)

By John T. Williams (1932–)

Okay, I’m cheating just a little a bit here. I don’t think that John T. Williams has ever actually composed a Heroes’ Suite. But this composer really is at his glorious best when he’s not trying to be a “serious composer”.

I own several recordings of John Williams’ serious works, and they are well worth listening to. But from time to time I get the sense that they were composed to prove that he can keep up with best of the modern composers (he can). But there is really some fine music in John Williams’ non-film corpus. Among my favorites in Williams’ serious compositional output is a piece for cello and orchestra, Heartwood (2001), recently released by Sony, with Yo Yo Ma.

My playlist for The Heroes’ Suite is offered here as if each element had been a movement in a single work. The notion is to show how well John Williams’ film and other public music can capture the glory thread – as “resplendence, the quality or state of rejoicing triumphantly; exulting”…. Try listening to these four in sequence and see of you don’t agree:

Summon the Heroes [1996 Atlantic Olympic Games]

YouTube Sample

Superman Suite

YouTube Sample

Raiders March from Indiana Jones

YouTube Sample

The 1992 Olympic Fanfare

YouTube Sample

A Grace Note

Of course, there are important spiritual implications when we use the term glory.

In the traditional Christian mass, for example, there is a section called the “Gloria”, in which the following words are spoken or sung – “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax” or in English – “Glory in the highest to God. And on earth peace.”

Another example is captured in the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Buddha in Glory

“Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

“Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

“a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.”

Glory shows itself within the many mystical traditions. And in all the spiritual realms, the notion of glory is deeply entrained with our experiences of awe.

By using awe as the organizing notion, I believe we can incorporate music’s expression of the spiritual dimension of glory as well as that raw, unfiltered experience of slack-jawed wonder. For in our capacity to appreciate awe we experience the beginning of humility and wisdom, the apprehension of glory and a great many other things. I believe this leads us to a separate musical thread. I’m finding it a challenging collection to assemble….

Stay tuned…



Gaskill’s Guide to Epic Orchestral Music


The Moderns Find Tonality

Ten Joyful Firsts

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