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Is western classical music and opera relevant to someone studying music today?

The answer to that question is a resounding and unequivocal yes!

It’s like someone who’s studying painting and sculpture wondering whether the great Renaissance or Impressionist artists are worth knowing. In fact, for anyone interested in making a living from the fine arts, of which music is one, it should be essential to know the magnum opuses of the great masters. Let’s just say that everyone isn’t a Mozart and so why not soak up all the inspiration the world has to offer?

There are many things that make music great. One of them most certainly is being able to withstand the test of time. Much of the classical music and opera in the popular repertoire has endured over a century or two, performed over and over again with various artists, different interpretations and fresh staging. And thanks to audio-visual recording and digital re-mastering we have access to a wealth of electrifying live performances that have gone down in history as nights to remember, musical feats ending with a frenzy of applause, as well as recording gems with the best musicians. Someone learning the piano, or for that matter any instrument, regardless of what genre they want to adopt, can only benefit by listening to the compositions of Beethoven, Chopin or Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. While only truly gifted musicians can actually do justice to the works of these geniuses, music is music and appreciation doesn’t require talent, only heart and soul. No one, musician or not, can listen to Beethoven’s heroic Fifth Symphony and fail to be awe-struck by its sheer majesty and brilliance. The hills really do come alive with the sound of music when you listen to great classical music.

And when you witness a top-class orchestra, with anywhere between 60 to 100 musicians all playing toward one inexorable, cathartic climax, it can be an almost spiritual experience where nothing else matters except the denouement. The effort is mind-boggling with no room for error. Add to this a story, libretto (text) and singers with astounding vocal athleticism and you have the apotheosis of the musico-dramatic art form that emerged in Italy towards the end of the 16th century – opera! Some of the world’s most recognizable and beloved pieces of music come from operas written by towering figures like Verdi, Puccini, Mozart or Wagner, to name a few. At the time that these composers were writing music there was no such thing as a sound effect. A stormy atmosphere that implied thunder, lightning and rain had to be accomplished through the music. Verdi’s last act of Rigoletto is a wonderful example. There’s a lot to be gleaned about atmospheric sound from opera. One would imagine that anyone who wants to compose music could learn a lot of tricks from opera, especially someone who’s interested in producing music scores for films. Clever operatic works, many of which are inspired by myth, history and literature, capture the action and mood of the story with uncanny precision.

Every artist is influenced by other artists. Beethoven was influenced by Mozart who was his hero and Haydn who he studied under. There is no doubt that legendary film composers like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams knew their eggs when it came to classical music and opera. Goldsmith was influenced by early 20th century composers of classical music such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Béla Bartok. His spine-chilling choral score for the film The Omen, which won him his only Academy Award for Best Film Score, is reminiscent of a requiem mass or missa solemnis. It was the first time that a film’s atmosphere and heightened sense of drama depended so largely on the score. Goldsmith had to have been very familiar with the church music and choral works of the great classical composers of yore. The barely audible incantations and jolting full-bodied chorus in Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Messa da Requiem, particularly the Dies irae, come to mind when you listen to parts of The Omen, which, incidentally, is also the first time that a full scale choir was used to create music for a movie. It also has shades of the O’ Fortuna, from Carl Orff’s scenic cantata, the Carmina Burana that touches on a variety of topics from the capriciousness of fortune, the euphoria accompanying the return of Spring, and the joys and dangers of drinking, gambling, gluttony and lust. It has become a regular feature in the classical repertoire and been used in several films and advertisements.

John Williams had a strong classical base and took over from Arthur Fiedler as principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a position he held for over a decade. He was strongly influenced by and attracted to the concept of leitmotif as evidenced in the music of Tchaikovsky and Wagner, where a recurring theme heralds the appearance of central characters or establishes a particular mood or emotion. In Tchaikovsy’s magnificent score for the ballet, Sleeping Beauty, both the Lilac Fairy and the wicked Carabosse are ascribed dramatically disparate leitmotifs or musical voices that immediately establish the age old battle of good versus evil. The result is pure magic.

Williams used this device of leitmotif with immense success in the Spielberg blockbuster, Jaws, winning his first Academy Award for Best Original Music Score. Who can forget the urgent discordant chords that signalled the imminent arrival of the blood thirsty great white shark? And his Academy Award winning music for the Star Wars franchise is peppered with influences from classical music and opera, most notably Richard Wagner, who’s Ring Cycle, comprising of four operas is after all the original franchise and has probably inspired generations of composers for movie music. A true multi-faceted genius, other than composing the music of his operas, Wagner wrote their librettos and stage directed them. The Wagnerian influence is unmistakable in Williams’ powerful music for Darth Vader and his malevolent realm, particularly from Die Walkure, the second opera in his Ring Cycle. Williams’ treatment of the love theme for Han and Leia is a nod to the poignant leitmotif of the doomed lovers in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. And the music for their ceremonial walk down the aisle has the distinct flavour of the popular march from Elgar’s composition, Pomp and Circumstance. Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet, the infamous Rite of Spring, which nearly caused a riot at its first performance, and, once again, Orff’s ubiquitous O’ Fortuna from the Carmina Burana also come to mind when listening to the score for the Star Wars franchise. These are just some of the obvious influences; there may be many other classical compositions and operas that inspired Williams to create what is probably one of the most brilliant and memorable film scores of all time.

Most of the giants in the movie music business have been influenced by classical music and opera. Many of them have composed their own concertos, sonatas, symphonies and opera with varying degrees of success. There is no denying the importance of classical music and opera to anyone who wants to make a name composing music whether it’s for films or advertisements. And for would be musicians surely appreciating some of the greatest music composed and hearing operatic voices that have spellbound audiences can only expand their horizons? ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ as the bard said, but for heaven’s sake don’t forget to listen!

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