10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Food and Drink
A Table of Mouthwatering Food and Drink
I love my food and drink. I can't think of anything better than to be listening to the radio on the classical music station or a classical music CD, while bustling about in the kitchen, marinating, baking, making soup or knocking up a salad.
You can't live without it, so it'll hardly be a revelation that composers have found inspiration through food and drink. Here are some compositions to chew over.
Sergei Prokoviev 1891-1953
1.Prokoviev. For the Love of Three Oranges
When I went to see a performance of the comic opera For The Love of Three Oranges by Opera North in Leeds, ushers handed out scratch and sniff cards to be, well, scratched and sniffed, at various points during the performance. It was a hoot, and brought the audience closer to the action.
Essentially it's a pantomime, a funny, farcical fairy tale in freefall. Hilarious for children with some veiled adult humour thrown in. What's not to like? Or so you'd think - caustic commentary by the critics accompanied the premiere.1
Nowadays the opera is a great night out, and the suite Prokoviev salvaged out of the battered score is recognised by classical music buffs - and those who don't take much notice of it, or so they believe.
The unlikely story is of a curse prince (there has to be a prince or princess, doesn't there?) cursed (naturally) by a witch (almost obligatory) to search for three oranges, but finds love on the way (the underdog coming out on top, mandatory).
The March is probably the number that most has the public ear today, the military straight-backed stance rather sarcastic in tone, a celebration of brash and brass.
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
2. Bach. Coffee Cantata
Ordinarily we associate Bach cantatas with church music - he wrote over 200 of them - but one stands firmly apart. The Coffee Cantata was not meant for St Thomas Lutheran church in Leipzig where Bach worked as Kapellmeister and was probably performed by the Collegium Musicum in Zimmerman's coffee house in the city.2
Essentially it's a comic opera in all but name, a father wanting to curb a coffee loving young woman's desire for three cups of the caffeine infused drink per day. The cantata's official title is Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht (be still, stop chattering), a reference to the negative effect coffee had on the nerves. Eventually the daughter persuades her father to draw up a marriage contract in which she is guaranteed her three cups.
Bach was supposed to be fond of the beverage himself - he was the director of the Collegium Musicum which met on Friday evenings - and presumably he wanted to stimulate his audience with his cantata about the once disapproved-of beverage.
How do you feel about food?
Erik Satie 1866-1925
3.Satie. Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear
To say Eric Satie was a tad eccentric would be an understatement. For one thing he lived in a single room in which he made room for a hundred umbrellas.3
Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear has of course nothing to do with the shape of pears, comice or Williams. They are unmistakably Satie, French, and entertaining, in a exasperating kind of way. Which was just as Satie liked it.
These miniatures were composed as a riposte to Debussy's quip that Satie's music lacked form. Satie, not one to take the criticism lying down (though it wouldn't have been beyond him to expect a performer to stretch out prostrate on the piano stool and play sideways on) came up with an ridiculous title and a tongue in cheek suite to match.
The suite does have a cohesion of sorts in that each piece is based on one or two themes but afforded freedom to explore off piste as it were, rather than be constrained by formal templates within which composers tended to frame their works, like, say the sonata.
Part of the buffoonery is that there aren't three pieces at all, but seven.
Satie starts us off In the Manner of Commencement, a snip of an introduction which doesn't actually lead in to the second part of the Manner of Commencement. It's a Gnossiène, slow and dirge-like but shouting a great big BOO! to round it off as children do when messing about at the piano. Of course the title is meaningless. What is the manner of a commencement when it's at home? You can start a piece just about any way you choose, surely?
Curiously, next up we have Prolongation of the Same. Nothing of the sort, it's breezy affair of a kind you might associate hearing in a cafe and only then do we have, as Satie marks it, One, slow and reflective, chopped up by loud chords just in case you start to wallow.
Cabaret comes to town in form of two short works of the type Poulenc liked to her by paying coins into a Nickelodeon. The first is designed to put a smile on your face, the second, gentler and sentimental, treated as an interlude before the return of the first.
The jarring chords of Brutal is surprisingly accurate considering the previous misleading notations. Satie offers another interlude - a sad folk-like melody , then the brutal chords briefly reappear.
The suite continues in Gnossienne-meets-Gymnopedies wandering vein, the somnolent um-pah accompaniment rocking the listener to sleep .
The um pahs carry on, unrelated melodically to the previous set, and draw to a close in understated fashion.
Ironically this deceptively simple work is hard to bring off. It must sound off the cuff, as if you couldn't care less about playing it, banal yet engaging, but at the same time if it's to be performed in front of an audience it's imperative to keep hold of its attention, for it to marvel at the flippancy, be in on the jokes, which is a way of saying, I know you're well informed, otherwise you wouldn't appreciate what I'm serving up.
The bass parts are mostly simple, the antithesis to the tour de force pianistic world inhabited by Liszt and many other virtuoso composer-pianists - his friend Debussy included. You can bet you bottom dollar Satie could give them a run for their money if he'd wanted. He just didn't see the value in it.
In the end what do we actually have here? Not three pieces, that's obvious. Open up the sheet music and we can see the order of play Satie has listed inside - there are in fact seven morceaux. But, as a listener, there are no less than ten distinct slices to this irreverent collection.
So, what does that tell us? Is Satie joshing again, deliberately wrong-footing us as he does with his unexpected harmonic shifts?
And another big laugh is that it's for piano duet, for two people to get together - it was a legitimate and popular way for a lady and gentleman to sit side by side in close proximity without having the finger of impropriety pointed at them. Food indeed, in the form of a pear, for thought.
Guiseppe Verdi 1813-1891
4. Verdi. La Traviata. The Drinking Song
Coming after the overture the drinking song is one of Verdi's enduringly memorable songs. So famous in fact that I used it to teach aural tests to my students as an aide memoire. Think of the opening to the infectious Brindisi drinking song and instantly the pupil can recall the interval of a major sixth.
The music swings along in good humour, a duet between lovers Alfredo and Violetta enjoying the pleasures of drink, Verdi employing his tried and tested lifting of the top note second time around, spilling over with hedonism. The chorus taking over, raising their glasses high in a great collective 'cheers!'. The good hearted bonhommie is a contrast to the tragedy about to unfurl, the tragic heroine on the brink of death from tuberculosis.
Brindisi is the Italian word for a toast, and also refers to an Italian drinking song.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
5.Tchaikovsky. Nutcracker Suite. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In the 1890s there was a rush to be the first composer to use a new instrument in performance - the celesta. Played like a piano and sounding like a glockenspiel with a much larger pitch range, it added a glittery texture to the orchestral timbre, perfect for a crystalline sugar plum fairy.
Tchaikovsky didn't win the race - that prize went to Ernest Chausson4 House - but when the celeste took up its position in the percussion section ready to make its twinkling debut for the sugar plum fairy to twirl to, a regular place in the orchestra was secured. The Nutcracker is an enduring Christmas favourite, memorable melodies, and a charming story worthy of Lewis Carroll of a girl dreaming of the nutcracker she has been given as a present.
For more classical music inspired by dreams click on the link.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
6. Debussy. La Puerta del Vino from Preludes Book 2
The Puerta del Vino or Wine Gate at the exotic Alhambra palace in Granada was the inspiration for this sultry prelude. Evoking a siesta in a cool tessalated tiled bedroom at the extreme heat of the day, having consumed a glass of manzanilla or Malaga, a guitar flicking great striding chords, Moorish strains emanating from afar. Rhythms of the habañera sing out, the fountains in the famed gardens tinkle in the distance. Debussy delivers a heady combination of the sounds and smells southern Spain, inviting you to walk under the portal.
Debussy never made it as far as this ornately carved wonder. Manuel de Falla sent him postcard of the heavily decorated stone archway. He used it a aural stepping stone, the entrance to his imagined world, where sleeping dogs snap at pesky flies in an instant, lying out of the glare of a scorching sun. Recognising Debussy's captivating auditory picture a ceramic plaque has been embedded in a wall nearby.5
Franz Schubert 1797-1828
7. Schubert. The Trout and the Trout Quintet
The song, The Trout was composed in 1817 and is a perfect example of the words painted by the music. The piano part ripples and undulates, taking the part of the river, whilst the singer, in the guise of fisherman, enjoys a lively tune over the top. The seeming jollity has a cautionary undertone - should a girl hook a trout, in other words, a suitor, beware. Blood may be spilt - a euphemism for losing her virginity.
A couple of years later Schubert used this song in the fourth movement8 of his piano quintet. Traditionally the instrumentation would be piano, two violins, viola and cello, but Schubert replaced one of the violins with a double bass. It wasn't the only unconventional idea Schubert had for the work - the quintet has five movements instead of the usual four.
The trout song makes its appearance on the fourth movement as a series of variations on the song and the double bass stars in one of them, which has become one of the most famous solos for the instrument. Although this movement is largely upbeat, a yearning variation in the minor key typifies Schubert's personality - never truly happy. Melancholy never fails to have a part to play, a thread woven throughout his vast number of compositions.
Schubert wrote over 600 songs. When you think he was only 31 when he died it's an astonishingly huge output.
Sigmund Romberg 1887-1951
8. Sigmund Romberg. The Student Prince. Drink, Drink, Drink
If any song takes me back to childhood, this one is it. Mario Lanza toasting the bright eyes of women, and that top note, easy as you like, sending a thrill up the spine. Exuberant as any drinking song should be, whether you agree with lifting a stein of beer or not to your lips, you can't help but help be caught up in the ebullient atmosphere of the tavern.
Sigmund Romberg wrote his hit The Student Prince in 1924 and was so successful it dominated Broadway during the 1920s and 1930s.5 Hardly surprising since it's packed to the gunnells with both catchy and heart tugging melodies, matching the prospect of impossible love.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
9. Mozart. Don Giovanni. Champagne Aria
Don Giovanni, that irrepressible, infamous boastful seducer of 2065 women is in trouble. Not that you'd think it according to the Don's ability to bat away any cares about his situation.
Having already kicked his latest lover Elvira into touch he is now intent on pursuing her maid, Zerlina. The fact she is about to be married doesn't impinge on his conciousness. He also has designs on the daughter of the commentadore, Donna Anna, who tries to unmask him when tries to enter their house in disguise. As Don Giovanni makes his escape he does so into the path of the commentadore and murders him.
The spurned Elvira chucks a spanner in the works and reveals Don Giovanni's unworthy character, while Donna Anna recognises him as her father's killer. The contemptible Don meets his end by descending into hell with an anguished cry
The champagne aria comes when Don Giovanni is invited to Zerlina's wedding. He asks his servant Zeporello to invite as many guests , particularly girls, for a party and to get them tipsy.
The champagne aria comes when Don Giovanni is invited to Zerlina's wedding. He asks his servant Zeporello to invite as many guests, particularly girls, for a party and to get them tipsy. The music gallops along, bubbling with excitement at the prospect of a party house brimming with young women. Effervescent and eminently singable, Don Giovanni's insuppressible character is perfectly captured by one of the greatest opera composers.
Johan Strauss II 1825-1899
10.Johan Strauss II. Waltz Wine Women and Song
In the true light hearted spirit of Strauss, elegant gentlemen and ladies waltz around the dance floor, white wine in an ice bucket back at their table, onlookers singing along to the music. The Waltz King was able to pull all manner of dances out of the musical hat: this is more unusual since it was written to include chorus.
The Vienna's Men's Choral Association asked Strauss to write a waltz for Fool's Evening in honour of their chorus master, Johan Herbeck and as a favourite saying of his was, 'Who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long'.6
Nowadays you'd hear it minus the chorus, most often at the New Years' Day concert in Vienna, televised around the world.
2 Open Culture
4 Royal Opera House
5 Chris Weeks. The Art of Listening
6 Oxford Music Online