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Storytelling with Classical Music throughout History

Long before this blog was born, telling specific stories through music was a common idea. Many composers, especially in the 19thcentury, wrote what has been called “program music,” or music that expresses an image or story. You’ve probably already heard of some of these: “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”) by Debussy, “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky, and “Pines of Rome” by Respighi. Hector Berlioz even wrote a piece called Symphonie Fantastique in which a man overdoses on opium, dreams he is beheaded, and then sees his true love in hell where he discovers that she’s a witch (he based it on his real-life obsession with an actress…yikes!).

Some composers have even written music that is directly based on literature. For example, Tchaikovsky wrote a twenty-minute long piece based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The opening music presents the solemn character of Friar Lawrence before we hear fighting between the Montagues and Capulets. Then the music switches to a yearning, lyrical portrayal of Romeo’s love for Juliet. As the fighting becomes intermixed with Friar Lawrence’s theme, the intensity of the music increases until we hear Romeo’s love theme yet again. But then the turning point comes as the music gets darker, giving way to the last return of the fighting and the friar. The piece ends in tragedy with a final repetition of Romeo’s love theme, this time with a despairing twist as the two lovers lay dying.

Different parts and themes of the music are used to invoke a specific character (like the friar and Romeo) and/or a specific action (Montagues and Capulets fighting), just like the Classical Music Stories in this blog. But just as Tchaikovsky’s music doesn’t express every single event or character (where’s Mercutio?), the themes are mixed together in ways that propel the story forward and give a different perspective on the story as a whole.

It’s also interesting that this piece was written in “sonata form,” one of the most widely used forms of composition around Tchaikovsky’s day, especially for non-programmatic music. If you heard this piece for the first time and didn’t know it was based on Shakespeare’s play, you probably wouldn’t say, “Oh! Of course, that’s Friar Lawrence.” But Tchaikovsky wrote the music to express just that, and we can hear it when prompted. In fact, not only can we hear it, but we also come to understand the music and literature in new and intriguing ways as a result!

In the end, some music was written with a specific story in mind and some was not. But don’t let that stop you from hearing your own stories in music! Just as you can hear Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” without the characters and hear cool music, you can also hear cool music and turn it into hearing literary characters!

Let me know what stories you’ve heard in classical music in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Storytelling with Classical Music throughout History”

  1. As a classically trained ballet dancer, I grew up on story music: I loved Peter and the Wolf recording and danced the role of the Bird. When I was very little, I remember hearing an Introduction to the Orchestra record. I love the Sleeping Beauty ballet music. The musician I just interviewed on my blog credits growing up with classical stories told through music as influential in her becoming an artist.

    Liked by 1 person

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