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Characteristics of Exemplary Works of Music

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you have a favorite piece of music? Why does it speak to you? Some works continue to be played years after they were written. What makes them special? In this lesson, learn about characteristics of exemplary works of music.

Exemplary Works of Music

Almost everyone enjoys listening to music. But have you ever wondered what makes certain pieces stand out? There are many musical styles and tastes, but sometimes you hear a few notes of a piece and recognize it immediately. In this lesson let's explore exemplary works of music by discussing three classical instrumental pieces that have stood the test of time.

Music as Historical Saga: 1812 Overture

In 1880, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote The Year 1812, festival overture in E Flat Major, Op. 49. Today, we know it as the 1812 Overture. It's one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in the world. The 1812 Overture combines folk tunes, religious hymns, and national anthems to tell a story through music. It recalls the winter of 1812, when the Russian army defeated Napoleon's French troops and defended Moscow.

The overture begins with strings playing somber sounds of a Russian orthodox chant (religious service music) signaling Russia under siege. Apprehension builds as the woodwinds enter. Then we hear the Marseillaise, a French anthem. The brass section explodes and the battle is on. The music builds, changes in tone and tempo, backs off and then surges again. We hear the battle ebb and flow. The Russians win, and triumphant brass along with chimes, percussion and cannon shots (yes, real cannons) bring the overture to its end. It's impossible not to be moved. Tchaikovsky effectively evokes history and patriotism through the music.

Music as Impression of Nature: Clair de Lune

Around 1900, young French composer Claude Debussy wrote and published Suite bergamasque, a four-movement piano piece based on rustic Italian dances. The third movement, a lyrical piece originally titled Promenade Sentimentale, is better known as Clair de Lune, which is French for moonlight.

Clair de Lune is an impression of moonlight on water effectively conveyed through music. It begins with a simple series of notes that seem to shimmer as they echo a gentle melody. Debussy wrote using inventive and unusual harmonies that don't always go where you expect. Using phrasing, or how notes are played and the gaps between them; tempo, how fast or slow the music is, and dynamics, how loud or soft notes are played, he conveys through a single instrument, the piano, moonlight, mist and even gentle raindrops. The piece ends with a reprise of the delicate opening melody. The mood and atmosphere it creates are so effective that it's been used in the soundtracks of many romantic movies.

Music For an Energetic Age: Rhapsody in Blue

In 1924, American composer George Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue (a rhapsody is a one-movement work), for solo piano and orchestra. Better known then as a Broadway composer, Gershwin was active in a time of great musical vitality. He was ambitious and forward thinking, and wanted to write a serious piece of classical music that incorporated elements of jazz and blues, both then newer fringe musical styles.

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