Parlez-vous Musique?

Music is the only true international language.

You don’t need  to understand the Spanish language in order to appreciate music written by Albéniz, De Falla, Granados or Tárega. Neither do you need to understand the French language in order to enjoy music by Massenet, Bizet, Berlioz or Debussy. And for lovers of classical music in the western tradition, the most influential composers are from Germany and Austria, but you do not need to speak German to enjoy Beethoven’s symphonies or Mozart’s string quartets. The same could not be said about works of literature. Shakespeare’s works need to be studied in their original English in order to be fully appreciated, because they lose a lot in translation. The same goes for Victor Hugo’s Works in French, and so on.

The international nature of our musical language extends far beyond the listening experience. Musical notation employing today’s standard five line staff has evolved from a 4-line staff invented by Guido d’Arezzo in Italy (approx 991 AD – 1033).

Second movement of Beethoven's 'Pathetique' sontata.
Second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ sontata.

It is universally used by musicians from every corner of the globe today.

As a result of this international standard, you can buy an album of Beethoven’s sonatas published in Bonn, take it home, place it on your piano, and start playing.  I admit it helps if you can read music, and know how to play the piano!  But it matters not whether you are Chinese, Japanese, English, American, French or whatever, you can read the musical language. The publisher may have written a short foreword in German, but the rest is universally intelligible to everyone who knows how to read music.

A typical modern Symphony orchestra in any European city is likely to be composed of musicians from many countries around the world. When they speak to each other, the players will use a mixture of English, French, German, and Spanish and many other languages. Perhaps some of them will have great difficulty understanding the spoken language of their fellow musicians. But when they start to read and play the music, everything flows naturally.

Of course, vocal music does offer some linguistic challenges. As soon as you start to listen to an operatic aria sung in Italian, you will have considerable difficulty understanding the words unless you are Italian! But obviously you can still enjoy the melody, the orchestration, and the qualities of the voice.

Purely instrumental music places no such barrier.

My other website, is multilingual. The pages are written in five languages, namely English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. But the people using this site are not restricted to speakers of these five languages, though I admit the largest single group is English speaking. I regularly receive Emails from people who have appreciated this site from countries as diverse as Israel and Iran. And Google Analytics reveal visits to the site from China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Philippines, and many more exotic places. It gives me considerable satisfaction to learn about the wide international set of visitors to my music site, all because music is the truly international language.

Blind Baa Diddles

There is a fascinating history behind English and other European nursery rhymes. Admittedly some of them are just pure and utter nonsense, with no hidden meaning, these are just designed to amuse very young children. Others, while seeming childishly innocent, actually have obscure but deliberately disguised meanings relating to the political situation at the time, sometimes with biting sarcasm. Others in more recent times have become subject to controversy over their ‘political correctness’. And a few (especially French ones) have saucy undercurrents!

1. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle.

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

This is extremely old, dating back to the 16th century. It is definitely pure childish nonsense. Many writers have tried to ascribe historical meanings to this rhyme, but they are all ludicrously far fetched. In England there are many pubs called the “Cat and Fiddle”, clearly referencing this nursery rhyme.

The tune is a bouncy ballad in 6/8 time. Listen to it, and view the sheet music here.

2. Three Blind Mice.

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?

This ancient rhyme dates back to 1609. So does its tune, which is a very well-known round. The ‘Farmer’s wife’ refers to ‘Bloody Mary’, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, (Queen Mary I of England) who persecuted protestants, especially noblemen who clung to their faith, by burning them at the stake. Presumably the rhyme was made by Catholics, so the mice’s “blindness” could refer to their Protestantism.
The rhyme only entered children’s literature in 1842 when it was published in a collection by James Orchard Halliwell. (Source:Wikipedia).

See this recording and sheet music for this round. It has the 1st voice played on a flute, the second on an oboe, and the third on a clarinet.

3. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

The words of this old English rhyme date from 1731. There is no firm consensus on any hidden meanings, however some historians suggest it might relate to ancient wool taxes. Black wool was more valuable, as it did not need to be dyed to make dark clothing.

In the British Navy it became common to say “Yes Sir, three bags full sir’, when mocking the obsequious servility seamen had to observe toward officers.

There was a brief ‘politically correct’ controversy about this rhyme in the latter 20th century merely based on the use of the word ‘black’, suggesting some sort of racial insult.

The tune is very similar to that of Twinkle, twinkle little star, which is originally a French nursery tune set to the words “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, and originating from 1761. Mozart wrote a famous set of variations on this melody. Listen to the tune and see the sheet music here .

4. Au Clair de la Lune.

This is a very popular French children’s song, dating back to the 1700s. Harlequin is a clear reference to the French equivalent of the ‘Commedia del’Arte’.

The tune is also well-known to English children, as it is commonly used as a simple practice piece when teaching an instrument. Even the French words (at least for the first verse) are known to English children who study French!

However, once you reach the third verse it starts to become a bit saucy.The first verse ends ‘Pour l’amour de Dieu’ (for the love of God). In the 3rd verse this is neatly reversed to ‘pour le Dieu d’Amour’ (for the God of Love).

Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot,
Prête-moi ta plume, pour écrire un mot.
Ma chandelle est morte, je n’ai plus de feu.
Ouvre-moi ta porte, pour l’amour de Dieu.

Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit :
« Je n’ai pas de plume, je suis dans mon lit.
Va chez la voisine, je crois qu’elle y est,
Car dans sa cuisine, on bat le briquet. »

Au clair de la lune, s’en fut Arlequin
Frapper chez la brune. Elle répond soudain :
« Qui frappe de la sorte ? Il dit à son tour :
— Ouvrez votre porte, pour le Dieu d’Amour ! »

Au clair de la lune, on n’y voit qu’un peu.
On chercha la plume, on chercha du feu.
En cherchant d’la sorte, je n’sais c’qu’on trouva.
Mais je sais qu’la porte sur eux se ferma.

By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no more fire.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon
Likeable Lubin
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!

By the light of the moon
One could barely see
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.

The tune and sheet music are here .

Schubert, the melodic genius unrecognized and unknown in his lifetime.

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) was born in Vienna, Austria. He was a genius at melodic invention. He wrote 9 symphonies, much piano and chamber music, and some famous song cycles.

Schubert admired Beethoven, but did not enjoy the same fame in his lifetime. Schubert’s world was one of more intimate meetings of friends in houses and salons, playing piano works, songs, and chamber music. His art was founded on solid classical traditions, but he also became a supreme romantic, inspired by the natural beauty of the Austrian Tyrol, where he frequently hiked with his singer friend Johann Vogl. His string quartet The Trout based on his own song written earlier, is a supreme example of his chamber music.

His 9 symphonies are all fabulous works of music, packed with memorable tunes that just go round and round in your head after a hearing. Unfortunately for him, he never heard them played in his lifetime. His last 2 symphonies (nos. 8 and 9) are frequently played these days, but the others are heard less often. This is a pity, because they are extremely listenable. His two piano trios (Opus 99 and Opus 100) are exquisite gems, both for the listener, and for the performers. They bristle with joyful melodies, and the piano, the violin, and the cello are each given plenty of opportunity to stand out. They are long works, but the listener does not tire, as the luscious sounds just keep coming!

He became seriously ill in his last four years, but his musical output was prolific none the less. He wrote the 8th Symphony (Unfinished), his 9th Symphony  (The Great), and The Shepherd on the Rock in this last period. He died tragically in 1828 at the age of only 31.

Schubert wrote no concertos, so we have no Schubert violin concerto, nor a piano concerto! If only he had lived longer, I am sure he would have written masterpieces to rival those of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky!

Here are a few links so you can listen to some Schubert masterpieces.

Tchaikovsky – the Swoon King of the romantic era.

Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) is one of the most famous romantic composers ever. He is definitely the best-known Russian composer. Also, his ballet music leaves everyone else’s attempts at that genre in the shade.

He was born in Russia in 1840. He started life as a lawyer, but
soon quit this, and at the age of 22 years he enrolled in the
Conservatory of Music at Saint Petersburg.

For the next 30 years he wrote some of the most beautiful music
ever written. Many of his themes are frequently referred to as
‘swoon tunes’, because they are just bursting with emotion.

Here are some links so you can listen to a few of his most
famous compositions.

Tune Recognition Quiz

This quiz in Best Classical Tunes plays a piece of music chosen at random, or from a set selected by the criteria below. You can try to name it (only in your head!). Then you can click buttons to reveal the theme notations and the title etc, to confirm how right you were!

Six of the Best

The very best! This is a page designed especially for people who are just beginning to discover the delights of classical music. It introduces some  absolutely exquisite gems to people who, as yet, do not know what to look for. On opening, this page immediately plays six pieces chosen at random from the best 150 in the world!  (I admit these choices are subjective matters of my personal taste!)  Six of the Best

The Playlist in Best Classical Tunes

This playlist page allows you to select a list of tunes to be played in sequence. The tunes are stored as audio mp3 files. The quickest way to get started is to hit the top button at the right panel, labelled  ‘Just Play Tunes’!

If you see an old playlist, you can clear it by clicking the lavender button ‘Clear playlist’.

To choose tunes individually type up to four keywords in the ‘search for’ box, and/or type up to four words in the ‘avoid’ box (to ensure these types of tunes will NOT be selected). Then click the pink ‘perform search’ button. A list of tunes matching your criteria will appear. You can now select the tunes you want to add to your playlist by clicking the grey buttons in the tune title column. Alternatively, by clicking the blue ‘add all to playlist’ button, you can select all the tunes at once.  Once you have finished adding tunes to the playlist, just click the green ‘start playing’ button to listen to your tunes.

Play Full Work

The ‘Play a Full Work (Entire Opus)‘  page shows all movements of any multi-movement work. Such works include symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, piano trios and many others. Simply clicking the button ‘Play Random Work’ will select one such full work chosen at random. Or else you may search for a specific work by entering your criteria into the text box. For example, if you type ‘Borodin quartet’ this page will display String Quartet No 2 in A by Borodin. If you click the button ‘Play All Movements’, it will highlight each movement as it is being played.

Tune Details

The ‘Tune Details’ page in Best Classical Tunes shows everything you want to know about a particular tune, melody, movement, or piece of music. It displays the musical staff notation for each theme of the piece. It has a media player for playing a recording of the music. There is a description of the piece, and some technical information such as time and key signatures. Your tune can be selected by using the menus, and from links on other pages.  Here’s a link to 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (Fate knocks at the door).

Musical Themes Dictionary

Best Classical Tunes has a dictionary of musical themes stored in its database. This allows you to identify melodies which you are carrying in your head. Perhaps you can hum them or sing them, but you can not give them a name. All you have to do is pick out the first ten notes, using the mouse on a virtual piano. (This is an image of a piano keyboard on your screen, with clickable keys for each note, black or white.)