Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
Man's best friend. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, descended from the magnificent wolf. Loyal, funny, eager to please and downright naughty, dogs are one of the most popular breeds of pets on the planet.
Doctors say that owning a dog is good for your health and disabled people benefit from guide dogs to help them cope with all manner of impairments and illnesses. They are highly intelligent and express a huge range of emotions which we tap into. No wonder so many of us can't live without them.
Frederick Chopin 1810-1849
1 Chopin The Minute Waltz
The Minute Waltz did not originally have this unfortunate title, goading gullible pianists to try and squeeze this delightful piece into sixty seconds of playing time.
Chopin's lover, George Sands, had a dog called Marquis, and his D flat waltz was intended to musically re-enact chasing its tail. This scenario fits perfectly, the round and round motion of the opening bars and the slight holding back whilst Marquis gets ready to have another go. Chopin chose to call his waltz Valse du petit chien (Little Dog Waltz)1 and it's such a pity it has been superceded, for it's by far and away more descriptive of the action.
The waltz should be played with freedom and time to breathe - and just a pinch of mild amusement, wondering why he finds the tip of his tail so irresistible.
Pyotr IlychTchaikovsky 1840-1993
2 Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
Tchaikovsky was a master of writing for the ballet, and the many short individual numbers that go to creating the Sleeping Beauty ballet make for a smorgesbord of varied folk tales with their respective dances, ripe for showing off the prowess of the dancers.
The carefree tune that begins this folk tale is the cue for Little Red Riding Hood to enter the stage. As the wolf becomes more insistent and closes in, so does the music, the urgent bass becoming denser until the wolf finally carries her off.
Léos Janáĉek 1854-1928
3 Janáĉek The Cunning Little Vixen
The Cunning Little Vixen is a charming work which, like Tchaikovsky's ballets suites, is immensely accessible to those coming new to opera and a great way to introduce them to twentieth century music.
Filled with not just the vixen, but a menagerie of other animals, folk tunes and a highly descriptive score, Janáĉek created a work that has remained popular ever since it was first staged in 1924.2
However, this is not an opera with a happy ending. The vixen is captured as a cub after she chases a frog into the lap of a forester who takes her home and keeps her as a pet. Eventually she escapes and meets a dog fox. Cubs soon follow.
Sadly the forester is in love with the gypsy girl Terynka who is engaged to Harasta the poacher. Harasta shoots the vixen and gives her fur to Terynka as a wedding present.
Harasta, broken hearted on two counts, returns to the place where he first encountered the vixen when a frog again leaps into his lap, symbolising the cycle of life.
Janáĉek made a suite from the music, exquisite in its orchestration and heartmelting sadness anticipating the vixen's death. But it is also uplifting by the inclusion of dancing rhythms, luscious harmonies and soaring brass he was so adept at writing. The music never fails to feel fresh, every bar holding our interest.
And of course in Janáĉek's vivacious music, the cunning little vixen lives on.
Janáĉek's Cunning Little Vixen Statue
Charles Lecoq 1832-1918
4 Charles Lecocq 1832-1918 Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Crow and the Fox)
Charles Lecoq may not be a household name but Le Corbeau et le Renard is an appealing ditty and well worth a listen. During the later years of the 1800s, Lecoq was a well known composer who enjoyed international success on the operetta scene.
Based on Jean de la Fontaine's recount of Aesop's fable, the disingenuous fox flatters the crow perched on a branch who has a piece of cheese in its mouth. All the while praising its plumage - even comparing it to the Phoenix - slyly he works up to encouraging the cawing crow to show off its 'beautiful' voice. The crow falls for it and opens his beak, and the cheese falls too. The crow, says the fox, has the same amount of brain as the cheese.
It's a jolly little song, and even if you can't understand the French language, you easily get the gist that the fox has outwitted the vain crow. Written in a simple folk style, with commentary by the piano, it's a wonderfully witty poke in the ribs highly enjoyable musical mouthful.
To read more about classical music inspired by birds click here.
Sergei Prokoviev 1891-1953
5 Prokoviev Peter and the Wolf
One of the treasured pieces to introduce children to classical music, Prokoviev's Peter and the Wolf is engaging, easy to listen to and has a great storyline. Crucially it teaches children the different instruments of the orchestra and how various sounds have different characters, stimulating the imagination.
Six year old Peter is handed an easy tune, innocent and happy-go-lucky, played by the strings. The duck's nasal quack is the reedy oboe while Prokoviev chooses three horns to warn of the nearby wolf. Grandad, with whom Peter lives, is a bassoon, tall and thin, the cat purrs on the clarinet and the bird, naturally, is the flute. To include all the orchestral sections, gunshots are fired by the timpani and bass drum. A narrator completes the set, telling the apparently simple story of a young boy not doing as he's told and staying inside so as not to come into contact with the wolf.
Of course the boy defies his grandfather's instructions and goes into the forest to try and capture the wolf. Peter meets some hunters and persuades them to take the wolf to a zoo. Prokoviev, whose favour with the Soviet authorities was shaky, uses the grandfather figure to represent the conservative regime, while Peter's defiance takes on the role of youth, pressing for change.
Franz Reizenstein 1911-1958
6 Franz Reizenstein 7 Children's Pieces - Cunning Fox
This is a very confident fox on a mission. Stalking and trotting its way round the countryside, it switches back on itself as if to confuse any watcher, sussing out a possible opportunity for dinner. Rather spiky and with the odd whiff of Prokoviev, Reizenstein's Cunning Fox should delight children. More perhaps, especially if they are very small, than his score for the horror film, The Mummy! 4
Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971
7 Stravinsky Renard
Written during the first world war, Renard is in the same musical style as The Soldier's Tale which came along a couple of years later. The wandering clarinet melodies, string quartet and lively percussion are all pepped up by the exotic cimbalom to make for a happy quarter hour's entertainment.
The piece takes the form of a burlesque. Dancing, spoken and sung dialogue, written by Stravinsky himself and based on Russian folk tales, are all brought together by the mocking tone and an open mesh of intertwined melodic lines.
The fox captures a cock through trickery, but is freed by a cat and a goat. Once more, the fox deceives the cock. This time the fox is not so lucky and is strangled by the cock's rescuers. The three of them dance and sing to celebrate getting one over the wily fox, all to the swagger of the marching band.
8 Crumb Mundus Canis (A Dog's World)
The American composer George Crumb loves dogs, so much so he created a suite to immortalise five of his pets, choosing the unlikely combination of the softly spoken guitar and what could be its antithesis, percussion. But Crumb matches the ringing sound with sympathetically matched percussion instruments that don't overwhelm the relatively understated guitar.
The suite is broken down into five sections to portray each dog:
Tammy. Tammy is slow moving and is in Spanish guitar vein. The players are directed to play elegantly and somewhat freely. The percussionist swishes the maracas - Tammy is rather close to the floor after all, and it mimics the sound of her crossing a wooden floor.
Fritz. When the direction is furioso, you know what you're in for. Crashing and rasping on a drum, knocking on the guitar, this is a dog creating mayhem.
Heidel. The wavelength of the gong introduces Heidel invokes an aura of mystery' putting us in mind of the golden hairs that run through the glossy brunette coat. This is a dog who isn't given to rushing around, instead she concentrates on knowing what beauty she possesses and shows it off. The relationship is most definitely on her terms and as she exits the room, the gong reverberates once again.
Emma-Jean. She has real character. You can imagine her pushing her nose into your hand and bouncing along on her little legs, pushing up on them to find a comfortable spot on the sofa.
Yoda. His name is shouted out, so he's being inquisitive in places he isn't supposed to be. The rasping guiro calls to mind claws on a wood floor, and the twiddles on the guitar could be his attempts to get into the rubbish, and getting told off into the bargain.
1 Psychology Today
3 Operetta Research Centre
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on January 18, 2019:
Hi Flourish. Love the vixen too, my favourite as I just adore Janáĉek. I also love dogs and have one myself, a very naughty Jack Russell.
FlourishAnyway from USA on January 17, 2019:
The music is always entertaining and the stories were truly standouts. I especially liked the tune about the vixen.