It’s been such a pleasure to be involved in the latest BBC Ten Pieces project aimed at secondary school students. As well as leading a workshop with Nitin Sawhney at a London school, I’ve written a series of lesson plans for two of the ten works, which have been available to teachers and students throughout the UK.
You can view the show here.
But if I ruled the world, what would be my Ten Pieces, my 10 works that could inspire young people to appreciate classical music?
Ottorino Resphigi’s music is amazing and bonkers, all at the same time. This movement, a mash-up of different Roman songs and dances, sums up his amazing abilities. Respighi doesn’t only compose great melodies, harmonized with lush Mediterranean chord sequences, but orchestrates them with a skill and daring rarely heard. The ending of this movement is as funky and in-your-face as any modern song! If you want to show kids how great classical music can be, turn up your speakers to max and enjoy the spectacle!
I remember very clearly the first time I performed this piece. There was a couple in the front row, desperately trying to stifle their laughter as we traveled our way through the squeaks and squawks of this fiendish aleatoric score. As with all music of this kind, if it had been explained to the audience, they would have listened from an enlightened viewpoint. Explaining that the emotional turmoil and terror victims of the A-bomb would have felt is not something easily portrayed through tonal music. But Penderecki invents a soundworld which is full of panic, confusion and suffering. I always ask students to read diary accounts and look at images whilst listening for the first time – powerful stuff!
One could argue, without Monteverdi, we wouldn’t be listening to the music we listen to today. One could also argue that he helped to popularize Surround Sound with his quadrophonic experiments at St Mark’s in Venice. This opening of the Vespers feels like the dawning of a modern musical age. You know the way old people say that music has gone downhill and that everyone is now just using a few chords? Well Monteverdi uses just one solitary chord for his choral part!!! And it’s still truly spectacular.
Kids love a good story of chaos. And they especially love the idea of chaos at a stuffy event like a concert or a ballet. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is perfect for this, and I’d argue that technically, I’m not sure the writing was ever surpassed during the rest of the 20th Century. This is music that an orchestra can both get their teeth into, and scare the living daylights out of them! But at least they’ve got the sheet music in front of them. Imagine being a dancer?!!
For many children, the only place they might hear symphonic-scale orchestral music these days is in a film. The range of emotional, technical and timbral possibilities is almost endless. Of course, one of the most successful and recognizable composers of this genre is John Williams. One could choose almost any of his pieces to inspire children, but I particularly love the Abandoned and Pursued music from ET. Such great chase music – such a great sense of urgency and panic.
Often, we don’t place enough of an emphasis on context when talking about classical composers. If I was writing a piece of music about a storm, I’d want as many sound effect samples as I could get. Thunder claps, lightning strikes, samples of rain bucketing down, etc etc. But bless him, the sample libraries were not available to Beethoven in 1820???! However, what Beethoven achieves in terms of communicating the violence of a storm, simply through violins violas, cellos, trumpets, timpani etc, is truly ingenious. And kids get this. How do you create a distant rumble of thunder as the storm passes, just on a few double basses?
I love this piece, merely for one moment! I have a brother who is a professional trumpeter, and I’ve even dabbled myself once-in-a-while! About halfway through the piece, Michael Haydn (the famous Joseph’s brother), asks his trumpeter to play eye-wateringly high. It comes out-of-the-blue, small steps at first, climbing upwards. And it just keeps going and going, and GOING! Wynton Marsalis’ version is stunning, but in some ways makes it sound too easy. Find an authentic instruments performance of it, and you really get a sense of how stupidly high this is!
It can be difficult for children to truly appreciate the genius of J.S. Bach. Trying to explain the technical complexities alone is hard enough. But for me, one of the easiest examples one can play to kids, which really shows them how clever this Bach dude was, is the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement of his fifth Brandenburg Concerto. It’s nuts!
How do you get to compose a piece, without ever stumbling over wrong notes? Easy, the Whole Tone scale. I often get kids to listen to this incredibly dreamy piece of music, and then show them the Whole Tone scale. Insta-composition!
10. Britten Lyke Wake Dirge
Benjamin Britten’s combination of medieval words and his dark music, conveying the mystery and intensity of death, is a great piece of 20th Century music for children. The tenor sings spookily high in his range, repeating the same musical phrase over and over again, trying to comfort himself, like someone whistling in the dark. And those ominous strings and French Horn, shifting their music underneath, startling the tenor by jumping in at unexpected moments. And then they all disappear one-by-one, leaving the tenor singing to himself. Oooh, spooky stuff!