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6 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Dreams

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

A Peace Dream of Eastertime

Picture by Joseph Keppler dated 1899.

Picture by Joseph Keppler dated 1899.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918


Debussy. Rêverie

A hushed mesmeric accompaniment in the bass lays down the atmosphere, nocturne cum lullaby, switching after a surge of tension, to place the tune in the left hand, mellow, settling down to the softly spoken mood of the opening.

A chorale chimes, woven between the undulating bottom line and peaceful melody fading out to a tranquil close . It is redolent of Debussy's Arabesque No 1 which was published around the same time. The composer didn't rate Rêverie, however, writing to his publisher, "I wrote it in a hurry years ago and purely for commercial purposes. It is a work of no significance and, frankly, I consider it absolutely no good."

Debussy's harsh opinion of his early composition aside, to close one's eyes and drift off to this early impressionistic work, is no hardship, and frankly, I consider it well worth listening to as do many others.

Debussy. Rêverie Played by Kathryn Stott

Franz Liszt 1811-1886

Photograph of Liszt in 1886.

Photograph of Liszt in 1886.

Liszt. Liebestraum No 3

I used to love playing this as a teenager - just the thought of being able to tackle a composer with a reputation for difficulty beyond comprehension was tempting enough but the mellifluous dreamy tone Liszt creates made it a joy to relax to after a hard session of practise. Normally just looking at sheet music with Liszt's name on it was enough to reduce you to a trembling wreck, so Liebestraum became a must-play stored inside the piano stool, near the top of the pile.

Peaceful and meditative, it's a dream of the true romantic and the filigree ornamentation of the wistful melody translate as flights of fancy revelled in by the dreamer.

Liszt chose A flat to immerse himself in his dream, soft and warm, like a an angora blanket to be pulled up whilst turning over to continue a contented reverie.

Liszt. Liebestraum No 3 Played by Daniel Barenboim

Hector Berlioz 1803-1869

Photograph of Berlioz held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Photograph of Berlioz held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Berlioz. Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique has a narrative running through it written by Berlioz himself. It is an artist's journey, thinking of the ideal woman and the image of her that he has in his mind. In other words a work with a programme attached and it did set the bar high for future works of this nature.

Berlioz gave it the title, 'Episode de al Vie d'un Artiste' (Episode in the life of an Artist); Symphonie Fantastique is it's subtitle by which it is usually known.2

Three of the five movements involve dreams. The first movement is concerned with unrequited love. The artist takes a large dose of opium and falls into a deep sleep. The woman is given her own theme, the idée fixe as Berlioz termed it.

Events in the artist's mind take a grim turn in the fourth movement, believing he has killed his would-be lover in another dream. His crime is punished by hanging, the artist being marched forcibly to the scaffold. The music accompanying the scene is in a major key, bold, forthright and business like. Even the chopped off head thumping onto the wooden platform is documented by two falling notes played pizzicato by the strings. It's a favourite of school orchestras who pluck those two fateful notes with macabre glee (I certainly did!).

Still dreaming in the fifth and final movement, the artist is laid to rest, though not much resting going on here, as the burial is overseen by a witches sabbath and all manner of demons and monsters appear to take in the spectacle. The idée fixe is reinvented as a screeching dance high up in the clarinet's register portraying the artist's ideal woman joining in frenzied dancing with the witches, the dies irae bounding in to boom out its choleric dirge.

There is no denying this is the work of a gifted composer with unusual ideas. The work was first performed in 1830, only three years after Beethoven's death, but the whole idea of the symphony seems to have been turned on its head. The instrumentation is strongly coloured and features such demands as flutter tonguing in the flutes (Berlioz was a flautist) and col legno string writing (playing with the wood of the bow).

Astonishingly in its originality, this is music from the pen of a tortured soul. I doubt it could have been written by anyone with their feet firmly on the ground, could it?

To read more about classical music inspired by witches click here.

Berlioz. Symphony Fantastique. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Claudio Abbado

Toru Takeitsu 1930-1996

Photograph of Takemitsu in 1961.

Photograph of Takemitsu in 1961.

Takemitsu. Dreamtime

Takemitsu has a fascination with the indigenous Australian notion of dreams, or Dreamtime as it is habitually referred to. Dreamtime is not the westernised idea of dreaming, it is spiritual in nature, tied in to aboriginal beliefs, spirits the creators of their natural world. The importance of this philosophy is wrapped up in ancestry and totems and how the Australian native people regard the beginning of time - Dreamtime, in effect.3

And the effect for Takemitsu is certainly mystical, in a different place from that of ordinary mortal space, an inner world of the subconscious. Washes of instrumental palette feathered at the edges. Glissandi strings and harp, gongs, east meeting west. There is no melody to latch on to, the experiences is of waves of sound washing in and out.

Dreamtime has some of the attributes of Webern's Five Orchestral Pieces, the bursts of sound, a shifting melange of orchestral textures. Takemitsu's very carefully crafted composition woven both tight and open, a richly decorated textile appliqued in gold and sliver threads to glimmer in the mystical sphere of the supernatural.

Takemitsu. Dreamtime. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Marin Alsop

Gabriel Fauré 1845-1924


Fauré Après un Rêve

Originally written for voice and piano, there are as many different versions of Après un Rève as you can think of. For the woodwind final of the 2018 BBC Young Musician of the Year, a flautist played it in the flute and piano arrangement. Songs often make good candidates for transcribing since the idea for any musician is to create as much of a singing line as possible. Fauré himself made an alternative version for cello and piano - I played it with a cellist friend in my school years and the piano part wasn't beyond my meagre technique.

Gentle and reflective, the tinge of melancholy reflects the true outcome of the dreamer, the lover in the dream is not devoting their life to a passionate union, he has left the scene.

The music hovers in between that half world between sleep and wakefulness, only rising out of somnolence at the top F climax at the realisation that dreams are delusionary, but wants to return to it, that way, the dream can be relived.

To read more about classical music inspired by the night click here.

Virginals From c1570

Virginals thought to have been made by  Benedetto Floriano.

Virginals thought to have been made by Benedetto Floriano.

GiIes Farnaby. Dreame

Found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Dreame is a short lively dance-like piece for keyboard - the virginal or a similar keyboard instrument like the organ.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book gained its name when the owner of this collection, Viscount Fitzwilliam donated it to Cambridge University in 1816. In all there around around 300 works, hand copied and includes compositions by such luminaries of the renaissance period as William Byrd. John Bull, John Dowland and Thomas Tomkins and dates between 1562 and 1612.4

Giles Farnaby was a renowned composer of keyboard music whose cousin, Nicholas was a maker of spinets, an early form of harpsicord.

Dreame has two very short main themes, both repeated, easy for the competent amateur to learn and perform for one's own entertainment. It has none of the soporific qualities of the Debussy or Takemitsu, this is perhaps a fleeting daydream, a whim, maybe wondering if it might be possible to ask that pretty lady for a dance, and well, here's the perfect musical ditty to move the feet to.

Giles Farnaby. Dreame Played by Azadeh Raoufi


1 Allmusic

2 Simple Wiki

3 Aboriginal Art Australia

4 www.imslp.org

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on May 07, 2018:

HI Flourish. Probably mine too, but the SymphonieFfanstique is very dramatic, but I do love the Takemitsu too, very different to my normal listening!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 06, 2018:

My favorite was your discussion of Berlioz — very dramatic!

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