June 2009

Power Music - Three Examples of How Music Can Represent Power

Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre
by Richard Wagner

Also Sprach Zarathustra
by Richard Strauss

Flight of the Bumblebee from The Tale of Tsar Saltan
by Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov

One of the things that drew me into Classical music at a very early age was music that could represent power. These are pieces that capture excitement, emotion, and strength. Here are three examples of pieces that do just that.

Richard Wagner (pronounced "REE-hkard VAHG-nair") was born in Germany in 1813. He is most well-known for his operas. Much of his music demonstrates great power and emotion. He also popularized the musical technique called leitmotif, which you might remember from last month. This is the idea of representing characters and telling the story with the music. "Ride of the Valkyries" appears at the beginning of Act III of the opera Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"; ask Grandma Joan how to pronounce an umlaut u; that's that u with the two dots over it). In Norse (Viking) mythology, valkyries (pronounced "VAHL-keer-eez") were immortal women who rode flying horses. Their job was to pick up the souls of brave warriors, who had died in battle, and bring them to Valhalla (pronounced "vahl-HA-la"), which was the Norse idea of Heaven. If there's one thing that should be very easy to hear while listening to this piece, it's the galloping hooves of the valkyries' horses. Below is an artist's conception of valkyries:

Richard Strauss (pronounced "REE-hkard STRAUSS") was also born in Germany, but in 1846. In the 1880s, a German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche (pronounced "NEE-chee") wrote a novel about an ancient Persian self-proclaimed prophet named Zarathustra (pronounced "zer-a-THOO-stra"). Zarathustra claimed to have had a vision describing the essence of the universe to be a struggle between good and evil (or technically, "truth" versus "lie"). Strauss was intrigued by Nietzche's book, and decided to write a piece of music inspired by it. The book was named "Also Sprach Zarathustra", which is usually translated in English to be "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (in other words, "this is what Zarathustra said").

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Russia in 1844. He was known for writing many orchestral pieces, as well as arranging other composer's works for orchestra. "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" was an opera that he wrote around 1900. In the beginning of Act III, the magical Swan-Bird gives the Tsar's son (Prince Gvidon) instructions on how to change into an insect, so that he may fly away to visit his father. When the prince transforms and flies away, we hear this very recognizable piece.

Jon's Introduction to These Pieces:

Like many from my generation, I probably first heard "Ride of the Valkyries" while watching the 1957 Chuck Jones classic Warner Brothers cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?" Elmer Fudd sings along with the main melody: "Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!" This cartoon was actually a conglomeration of four different Wagner operas. I was to gain a greater appreciation for this music in my teen years. Of particular note, there was a rendition of it that played during the closing ceremonies on the Commodore 64 game "Summer Games II". I was also known for playing this melody loudly on my trombone in High School.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra" became enormously popular because it was used as the main theme from the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would not see this film until I was in my teens, but the theme was very popular. If I were to pinpoint it, I'd say I probably first heard it on the children's show "Electric Company". The show had short cartoon snippets, in which a large stone monolith would appear (and you'd hear the music), crumble to the ground, and reveal a word (announced by a deep voice).

I believe I first heard "Flight of the Bumblebee" when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Our music teacher came to class one day to have us listen to different pieces of music and ask us what we envisioned. She played us "Flight of the Bumblebee", and I remember picturing a swarm of flies. In my teen years, I remember being amused to find that the Commodore 64 game "Summer Games II" featured "Flight of the Bumblebee" at the beginning of the Cycling event.


We're going to listen to each piece, but they're all fairly short. So, let's start:

Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner

Do you hear the galloping hooves? Do you see the flying horses soaring above the battle?

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

What do you picture when you hear this piece? Were you startled?

Flight of the Bumblebee from The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Close your eyes when you listen to this one? What do you see? What landscapes do you envision? What creatures do you see?

For those interested, "Ride of the Valkyries" was performed by Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was taken from the Soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey and was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan; "Flight of the Bumblebee" was performed by Isaac Stern.

Jon's Interpretation:

I was told in my teen years that John Williams was inspired by Richard Wagner for some of his work. This made perfect sense to me. Some are more familiar with "Ride of the Valkyries" from the movie "Apocalypse Now". I've never seen the film. To me, this piece exudes power and force, as well as flight. It's also incredible to me that, with a group of instruments, you can so clearly represent galloping hooves and soaring glides.

It is not uncommon for me to turn up the volume while listening to "Also Sprach Zarathustra". It's short, but it is triumphantly powerful. To me, it represents a force greater than mere mortals can comprehend. Perhaps that was what Strauss, Nietzsche, and even Zarathustra himself, set out to do.

"Flight of the Bumblebee" is another marvel of modern composition to me. How is it that a group of instruments can represent a sound that is universally interpreted as an insect? Some pieces you can blame interpretation on popular culture (i.e., it gets used in movies, cartoons, etc.). For this one, I don't care who you are. You see insects.

Extra Credit:

For "Ride of the Valkyries", I would recommend taking the time to enjoy "What's Opera, Doc?" This can be found on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2, but I've included an MP4 version of it here (expect 10-15 minutes to download). Enjoy!

What's Opera, Doc? by Chuck Jones

For "Also Sprach Zarathustra", here is a YouTube link of one of the Electric Company shorts that I was talking about. The person incorrectly attributes this short to Sesame Street. Enjoy!

For "Flight of the Bumblebee", I've included a favorite recording of mine. Usually, this piece is performed by a flute or violin. This is a recording of it being performed by a tuba. I've actually seen the Canadian Brass Quintet perform this live, and it's impressive. Enjoy!

Flight of the Tuba Bee performed by the Canadian Brass Quintet

And lastly, for those who yearn for the days of listening to the Commodore SID chip again (okay, that's just me), here are the sound clips from the Commodore 64 game Summer Games II mentioned previously:

Summer Games II - Cycling "Flight of the Bumble Bee"

Summer Games II - Closing Ceremonies "Ride of the Valkyries"