RSA at Home: Why Do We Write Classical Music?
Why do people bother composing classical music?
Sure, a lot of times, a composer just has a great idea that he wants to write. Eventually, it’s performed, and we hear it at a concert.
But did you know that sometimes people pay composers to write music for special occasions? This is called a “commission”. Commissioning a new piece of music is a great way to add extra excitement to any celebration.
Here are some of the events for which people commission music:
Sports and Other Public Events
When big events begin, there’s often some kind of public ceremony, like the opening ceremony that always starts the Olympics. This is a big celebration of all the athletes, and a lot of times, the Olympic Committees will commission a composer to write a new piece of music just for those games. Sometimes, the television networks will also commission music so they have background music for their broadcasts!
Before the opening of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, John Williams conducted a special Olympics concert that included the first performance of Call of the Champions, a piece he wrote specially for the 2002 Winter Games.
John Williams: Call of the Champions
Of course, most holidays have music! What would Christmas be without Christmas carols? Almost 300 years ago, Bach wrote his Christmas Oratorio— a musical retelling of the Christmas story— which was performed at his church to celebrate the Christmas season.
J.S. Bach "Jauchzet, frohlocket"
Opening Buildings and Monuments
Sometimes, holidays can overlap with other special occasions. In 1986, the USA celebrated the reopening of the Statue of Liberty after a long refurbishment. To celebrate the 100th birthday of the statue (and the 4th of July!), John Williams created the Liberty Fanfare.
John Williams Liberty Fanfare
New babies are a great reason to celebrate! Some composers have written pieces of music for their own newborn children or to congratulate friends. But in 1930, Edward Elgar wrote a special piece for the British royal family to celebrate the birth of Princess Margaret, the younger sister of today’s Queen Elizabeth II. His Nursery Suite features charming melodies that portray the kinds of toys one might find in a child’s room.
Edward Elgar: Nursery Suite: VI. The Merry Doll
Birthdays are another great reasons to celebrate! In 1869, Richard Wagner did something super romantic for his wife, Cosima. He composed a special piece titled the Siegfried Idyll. Siegfried was the hero of one of his famous operas, but it was also the name of their new son, who had just been born. He surprised Cosima by sneaking a small orchestra into their front stairs so that she was awakened by the sound of beautiful music floating up to her!
Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
As a bonus piece, here’s some music John Corigliano wrote as a birthday present for conductor Georg Solti. As it begins, you may recognize fragments of a familiar melody. These slowly come together like a puzzle. But don’t worry if you don’t figure it out at first— it all comes together with the full song starting at 2:56!
John Corigliano: Campane di Ravello
When a new king or queen is crowned, it’s a big deal, and there’s a lot of music and pageantry. Naturally, a composer is often asked to write a new piece of music for the occasion. When King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) was crowned in 1937, William Walton composed Crown Imperial.
William Walton: Crown Imperial
We don’t just celebrate happy occasions. Sometimes sad things happen in life, and we want to honor and remember the people who have left us. When Queen Mary died in 1694, Henry Purcell composed special music for her funeral. Here’s the march that played at the beginning.
Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary: March
Sometimes music is commissioned to help us remember even bigger sad events. In 1999, the students at Columbine High School asked Frank Ticheli to write a piece in honor of their friends who were killed earlier that year. The Columbine High School Band performed the premiere of An American Elegy on the anniversary of their friends’ deaths.
Frank Ticheli: An American Elegy
What’s a party without music, right? And how do you think they got music at parties in the days before Spotify or Apple Music? They had live musicians! In the 18th and 19th century, composers wrote a lot of pieces called “serenades”. While some of these were concert pieces, a lot of them were meant to be played as background music at a party. We don’t know why Mozart wrote his Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade, but maybe some rich noble asked him to write it for a party!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
There sure are a lot of great reasons to write music!
And the best part is, once the special occasion is over, the music is still around, and we can listen to it and remember it for years to come. Do you think Cosima Wagner thought we’d still be enjoying her birthday present over 150 years later?
What about in your life? What occasions do you think would be a good reason to commission a new piece of music?
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