Some great classical music is built from melodic fragments rather than what Edward Elgar would call “the great tune.” Beethoven’s Fifth grows from the shortest musical motto. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” grows from sounds that pound. Yet Beethoven and Stravinsky also wrote great tunes, like the slow movement of the “Pathetique” Sonata and the final theme of “The Firebird.”
You can be an aficionado of rhythm and harmony and counterpoint and still appreciate the special joy of a great tune.
Some of the most melodious music in the classical canon is familiar even to people who don’t think they know classical music: “The Swan,” from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of Animals,” and Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and the “Spring Song” from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” and any of several great tunes from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.”
Someone who thinks he doesn’t know classical music might confess an ignorance of Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane,” only to blurt out, “I know this, I love this piece” when he hears it. This is also true of any number of Chopin pieces, Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thais,” and several Dvorak “Slavonic Dances.”
There are also great tunes in classical music that even classical aficionados may not immediately recognize, such as the second ballet from Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde,” a particular favorite of mine, or the “Oriental March” of Enrique Granados, or Mikhail Glinka’s “March of Chernomor” from “Ruslan and Lyudmila.”
On a program of “great tunes” I’ll also honor Edward Elgar for that term by playing a great tune of his, from his suite “The Spanish Lady,” and a waltz from Jacques Offenbach’s “La Perichole,” the operetta that inspired Gilbert & Sullivan.
All this will work up to a great tune from the First Symphony of Vasily Kalinnikov, a pinnacle of Russian classical music though the composer, who died young of tuberculosis, is barely remembered today.
For filler I’ve lined up two memorable tunes from music I heard in my childhood – from a record my dad had, Milt Bernhart’s “The Horns,” built on rising fourths like the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony, and Nelson Riddle’s theme (replacing the original theme by Billy May) to the ABC television series of the 1960s, “The Naked City.” I was too young to watch it but a disc jockey in Baltimore used it as his closing theme so I heard it a lot.
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