Like any art form, classical music becomes more approachable and rewarding the more you learn about it. And that doesn’t require formal study. It just involves getting familiar with a few of the primary building blocks used in classical music, because structure is as important in this genre as in architecture.
Familiar structures include symphony, sonata, string quartet and concerto — all of these typically involve several individual structures, called movements, that together make up the whole piece. A popular form used as the movement of such a work is called theme and variations. More on that in a moment.
Classical composers also write plenty of single-movement works, and a popular example is known as a tone poem. More on that, too, in a moment.
For a brilliant example of a tone poem, as well as theme and variations, it’s hard to beat “Don Quixote” by Richard Strauss, inspired by the Cervantes novel about the windmill-battling knight. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs the work this weekend.
Lots of classical music exists for its own aesthetic sake; any deeper meaning is up to the performer and the listener. But there are many compositions that seek to conjure up specific imagery or evoke a certain narrative. This genre is called program music.
A common form of program music is the tone poem, a work for orchestra typically inspired by a literary work — case in point, “Don Quixote.” Tone poems about nature also are plentiful.
No one excelled more at tone poems than Strauss. As British conductor Charles Hazlewood says, “Don Quixote,” composed in 1897, demonstrates how Strauss “took pictorialism in music as far as it could possibly go.”
BSO principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, who will tackle the demanding, almost concerto-level solo in performances led by guest conductor Jun Markl, relishes that pictorial quality.
“ ‘Don Quixote’ is an amazing, ultra-romantic piece,” the cellist says. “It has so many deep emotions and a lot of humor. Every variation shows a different chapter of Cervantes’ book.”
Theme and variations
The practice in jazz of playing a song once through and then improvising on it is something akin to theme and variations in classical music. In this case, after a theme is played, it can undergo a very intricate, complex series of transformations, melodic and harmonic.
To paint in sound the vivid story of Don Quixote, Strauss drew upon theme and variations (tone poems are more commonly written using other structural forms). Since there are two principal figures in the Cervantes novel, the title character and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, Strauss provides thematic material — and an instrument — for each.
“The cello represents Don Quixote,” Skoraczewski says, “and you can hear in the cello his struggles and delusions.” Sancho Panza’s voice is heard mostly through a viola.
The ingenious development of their themes adds to the rich atmosphere in this tone poem, helping the listener keep track of the actions and moods as the narrative unfolds.
Following ‘Don Quixote’
Introduction: This scene-setter evokes the Don perusing books about knights of old. You quickly sense his fuzzy state of mind; odd cadences — the chords don’t resolve the way our ears expect — underline that point. Important melodic fragments dart around the orchestra, hinting at the Don’s theme. A lyrical idea also appears in the haze; it will take flight later on to represent the Don’s ideal woman, his beloved Dulcinea.
Theme: At the end of the unsettled Introduction, the solo cello plays the Don’s multifaceted theme. It begins with a proud little fanfare-type melody, which seems to declare: “I’m a noble knight.” The cello line then boldly leaps and sweeps before making little descending gestures that suggest the hero’s gallant steps. This one, long theme, with all of its rapid mood swings, ends with those tender, but not-quite-normal, cadences first heard in the Introduction.
Next comes a theme representing Sancho Panza, played first by bass clarinet and tenor tuba, then solo viola, which will be the character’s primary instrument. The theme sounds as lumbering and good-natured as you picture Sancho Panza to be.
For the rest of the piece, Strauss weaves these themes through the music in increasingly inventive ways, making you aware of both characters at every moment of their strange journey.
Variation 1: A series of adventures finds the Don seeing a threatening giant where there are only innocent windmills; the orchestra evokes their steady motion. After foolishly rushing at them, the Don gets thrown to the ground — the music sounds just like a crash and tumble — and his theme sounds as if it has had the wind knocked out of it, too.
Variation 2: The Don thinks a multinational army is invading, but it’s just a flock of sheep, depicted by woodwind and brass players using a flutter-tongue technique to produce a dissonant bleating sound.
Variation 3: A dialogue between the Don and Sancho Panza is conveyed by the interplay of their themes. When the Don talks about Dulcinea, Strauss gives her theme a radiant treatment with sumptuous orchestral coloring.
Variation 4 to 6: The Don mistakes processing pilgrims — the music captures their chanting — for a threat to Dulcinea. Later, Sancho Panza tricks the Don into thinking an earthy woman they encounter is Dulcinea; the cello communicates the Don rationalizing that a spell must have been placed on her.
Variation 7: Villagers fool the blindfolded Don and Sancho into thinking they are flying through the air while on a wooden horse. Strauss introduces wind machines to enrich the image, but deep-rooted harmonies in the orchestra reiterate that no one has left the ground.
Variation 8 to 10: The two companions find themselves on a boat that gets capsized (pizzicato notes in the strings convey the men shaking off the water afterward); then encounter a pair of monks, portrayed by two serious-sounding bassoons. After losing a duel with a knight (a kindly neighbor in disguise), the Don starts to come to his senses and heads for home.
Finale: As the Don recalls his adventures, the work’s major themes float by, but sound clearer and calmer. Those cadences that had been harmonically off resolve smoothly now, since the Don, approaching death, is sane again. With a downward slide, the cello depicts the would-be-hero’s final breath, and the orchestra offers a respectful farewell.
The BSO performs Strauss’ “Don Quixote” Oct. 20 and 22 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; Oct. 21 at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $33 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.