Choral music has held a revered and beloved place in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. From medieval times to today’s children’s choirs, here are four things you need to know about choral music:
1. Choral music has its roots in religious music.
Most of today’s choral singing groups can trace the roots of their practices back to sacred music. The most popular example is probably the Gregorian chant that was a familiar part of medieval church services.
In Gregorian chant, groups of monks would participate together in singing the various passages of sacred music. The conscious blending of their individual voices created the powerful sound of a single musical presence. It still serves as the model for much modern-day choral music.
Gregorian chant, a form of the monophonic “plainsong” or “plain chant,” accompanied the recitation of the mass and the divine office of the canonical hours. It derives its name from the fact that it developed during the rule of Pope (later Saint) Gregory I, at the turn of the 7th century of the Common Era.
The development of polyphony, the use of more than one voice or tone heard in a composition, brought composers the opportunity to expand on the range and types of compositions they wrote. When creating contrasting vocal parts, composers often drew on the talents of young boy sopranos to sing the contrasting trouble notes. This is because during this period in history, women’s voices were often forbidden in public performance.
2. Choral music eventually found a secular audience and begin to include lyrics and instruments.
As religious reformation and social secularization progressed, audiences outside sacred spaces enjoyed greater opportunities to hear choral music in performance. Once it flowed outside the monasteries and into the streets, its composers experienced greater creative freedom. They began to abandon the formalized structures common to sacred choral music, and to add instruments into the mix.
Composers also began to bring in human voices singing in chorus to enhance and add texture to familiar types of instrumental pieces. The addition of words enabled composers of instrumental music to address their audiences in new ways.
The Baroque period saw Italian composer and singer Claudio Monteverdi creating “polychoral” sacred pieces with multiple choirs and increasing numbers of instruments. The 16th and 17th century choral tradition also included the development of numerous motets, a form that evolved during the Middle Ages into a variety of types of religious and secular compositions.
3. Choral music was integrated into the oratorio and symphonic traditions.
The oratorio, a larger composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and typically based on stories from scripture, was born as composers expanded on the form of the motet. The oratorio form reached its apogee during the 1600s. The German composer George Frideric Handel, who worked extensively in England, perfected this type of music. Handel became, in fact, the father of the particularly English style of oratorio.
One exceptional 19th-century example of the integration of choral music into the symphony is the “Ode to Joy” sequence of the 1824 Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The large-scale choir’s singing of text by the lyric poet Friedrich Schiller lifts the mood into a soaring affirmation of humanity’s potential.
For many lovers of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s use of choral performance in his titanic symphonies represents the pinnacle of the form. Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, as well as his Third and his Eighth, offer powerful musical interpretations of the nature of love, life, and fate enhanced by the voices of their choruses.
The Austrian composer, whose creative period straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, became known for his thundering, multi-layered sound. His Eighth Symphony earned the title of “Symphony of a Thousand” thanks to its gargantuan cast of voices and instruments. It is written for performance by a massive orchestra, a double chorus, a boys’ choir, and eight single solo voices.
4. Today, children's choral groups continue to delight performers and audience members alike.
Today, choral music in the United States continues to flourish, performed by a wide range of ensembles of all ages. Children’s choruses offer opportunities for young people to engage with music education, learn performance skills, and develop friendships based on a common commitment to creative work.
The Children’s Chorus of Washington is one group that represents the nation’s capital. Over the past 24 years, it has provided choral training and experiences to 2,500 youth and toured internationally.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is a mosaic of six individual groups of some 450 singers total. Under the auspices of the Deloitte Concert Series, it performs seasonal concerts at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Boston Children’s Chorus is composed of about 500 students from all over the greater Boston area. Almost half of them live in the city of Boston.
Children’s choruses typically hold auditions at designated times of year, and work hard to open opportunities to as many talented young people as possible. The BCC’s students, like those in Washington DC, Dallas, and many more communities around the country, are eligible to receive need-based scholarships to support their participation. In fact, about 80 percent of the BCC’s performers attend its musicianship programs on scholarship.
Teaching children to sing and play their country's national anthem—and those of other nations—can be a fun, effective musical lesson. National anthems can also serve as an effective means of connection between the arts and studies in geography and culture, at a time when educators are realizing the value of helping students build bridges between subjects.
Enriching the music curriculum through cultural geography
In units on patriotic songs, teachers have come up with rich curricula on the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and many other national anthems. Information on some of these is available through the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). The organization offers links to repositories of vocal and instrumental performances of these anthems, as well as sheet music and background summaries on hundreds of current and historic anthems.
In addition, several publishers offer engaging books for children explaining the origins and importance of national anthems. Also widely available are books for all ages containing sheet music of the world’s anthems. The book National Anthems from Around the World, prepared by well-known music publisher Hal Leonard, LLC, is just one example.
Thanks to the internet, recordings of these anthems in their original languages are only a few clicks away. Several versions are accessible on YouTube and Spotify. Public libraries are another rich—and free—source for streaming versions of the world’s national anthems.
Music is a truly universal language. On the other hand, a country’s national anthem presents its people’s viewpoint on their history and their hopes for the future. Let's take a look at a few contemporary national anthems and learn how the stories they tell demonstrate both the diversity and common experiences of the world’s peoples.
A poignant reflection on war
While it's notoriously difficult to sing well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become a time-tested American institution even before it became the country’s official anthem in 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the congressional resolution declaring the song’s historic status on March 3 of that year.
Francis Scott Key famously wrote the words as a poem on September 14, 1814. Key drew inspiration from his sighting of a single American flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Maryland as the fort sustained British bombardment during the War of 1812. Key was an eyewitness to the attack, as he waited on board a ship only a few miles away with the friend he had just helped release from British captivity.
Key titled his poem the “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Years later, others set his words to the tune of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” composed by John Stafford Smith.
A royal and national hymn that went around the world
The country from which the United States gained its independence has its own time-honored anthem in “God Save the Queen” (sung as “God Save the King” during the reign of a male monarch). This anthem is also often used throughout the British Commonwealth.
The song’s origins are obscure. The Oxford Companion to Music lists several early variants. Some authorities credit Henry Purcell or any of several other 17th century composers. Many music historians cite composer and keyboardist John Bull, who died in 1628, as the song’s likely author. Others point to a passage in an old Scottish carol as remarkably similar to the current version of the anthem.
In any case, the earliest known printing of the unattributed lyrics to “God Save the Queen” appeared in 1745. The song soon appeared on the English stage and found its way into the work of composers George Frideric Handel and Ludwig van Beethoven. American composer Samuel F. Smith borrowed the tune for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which appeared in 1832 and has become an unofficial second national anthem for the US.
A paean to the “True North”
Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada,” was first publicly performed in 1880. Its title in the original French, as written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music by Calixa Lavallée, was “Chant national.” A special government committee approved the song as the country’s national anthem in 1967, and it was officially adopted in 1980.
The song’s lyrics celebrate the beauty and strength of this country of the “True North,” and express the hope that, through the help of God and “patriots,” it will remain “glorious and free.”
Born in revolution
France’s national anthem, the marching song “La Marseillaise,” literally calls citizens to arms in defense of freedom in the fight against tyranny. Amateur composer Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle came up with the song overnight in 1792, at the height of the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy. The song’s current popular name arose after troops from the port city of Marseille adopted it as a particular favorite.
The beauty of the land
Some national anthems focus less on military or sovereign power and more on the natural beauties of the lands they represent. Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” exalts its people’s home “girt by sea,” with its “beauty rich and rare.” Similarly, the Czech Republic’s national anthem’s title translates literally as “Where Is My Home?” The song’s simple, meditative music and lyrics convey the loveliness of the country’s landscape of pine trees, mountain crags, and flowing streams.
A symbol of national reconciliation
Other countries’ national anthems focus on their diversity and hard-won unity. South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is based on a 19th century hymn originally written in Xhosa that later became the anthem of the African National Congress. In the early 1990s, during the dismantling of apartheid, the country declared two national anthems: “Nkosi” and the Afrikaans apartheid-era anthem “Die Stern van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa.”)
When the country won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, both songs were sung together. Today, South Africa's national anthem combines shorter versions of both songs into a single national hymn, with lyrics in five languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.
When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.
Antonio Vivaldi, born in Venice in 1678, achieved fame during his lifetime as one of Europe’s greatest composers. His works have continued in popularity over the centuries—his “Four Seasons” and other richly textured concerti, as well as his operas, are still beloved by listeners all over the world. Vivaldi’s influence on the development of Baroque music, particularly on the emerging form of the concerto, cannot be overstated.
Even scholars, however, often overlook how he opened doors for the participation of women in music. Here are a few facts about Vivaldi’s work with an extraordinary group of Venetian female musicians, and how they themselves achieved renown for their gifts in an age when few women and girls had such an opportunity.
“The Red Priest” and the orphanage
Vivaldi worked with the church and orphanage of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice sporadically from 1703 to 1740. An ordained priest nicknamed “Il Prete Rosso” (“The Red Priest”), most likely due to his vivid red hair, Vivaldi soon ceased to administer the sacraments and concentrated on his work as a composer and teacher.
At the Ospedale, he served as a violin master and, later, a concert master. He also composed large numbers of works to be performed by one of the world’s most accomplished—and largely unknown—musical groups: a chorus and orchestra made up entirely of orphaned girls and young women.
The long history of the orphanage
The Ospedale was a creation of the Middle Ages. Founded by a 14th-century Franciscan priest as a charitable home for orphans, it took in both boys and girls who had lost their families to famine, plague, and other horrors that were common in the Europe of that time. It was attached to the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, which also served as a public hospital.
Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, such institutions—a combination hospital, orphanage, and musical conservatory—flourished in Venice. The Pietà was one of four major ospedali that made the city a must-visit musical destination until the fall of the Venetian Republic at the close of the 18th century.
Marketing a music school
The Ospedale needed a continuous supply of generous patrons in order to feed, house, and clothe the increasing number of children within its walls.
Its most creative—and best remembered—marketing effort involved establishing a girls’ choir, composed of its orphaned singers and musicians. The school would test each child at around age 9, to see if she had the needed flair for music. If a girl showed promise, the school made sure that she would have access to the finest musical education possible. (Researchers believe that many of the girls were not, in fact, orphans at all but the illegitimate children of noblemen, thus providing an additional explanation for the lavish expenditure of funds on a fine musical education.)
Giving young women performers a voice
Beginning in the 1600s, the Ospedale’s girls’ choir performed in religious pageants to which the population of Venice was invited. By the following century, the fame of this orchestra was such that visitors from all over Europe traveled to Venice to hear, incidentally providing significant new revenue streams for the church and orphanage.
Some of the young women performers became legendary, earning nicknames based on their talents. There was “Maria of the Angel’s Voice,” for example, and “Laura of the Violin.”
But of the hundreds of girls who lived at the Ospedale, only a few dozen at a time had the talent necessary to become members of the orchestra and chorus.
Vivaldi’s compositions for the school
Vivaldi became the most famous of all the renowned instructors of the Ospedale’s girls’ orchestra and chorus. He composed numerous cantatas, concertos, and sacred works specifically for his pupils to perform.
One stellar example: He created “Gloria in D Major,” one of the finest compositions in the entire repertoire of sacred music, for the group. The girls sang this piece while situated high up in the top-most galleries of the church, where they would be concealed from the curious stares of tourists and the rough-and-tumble public. The fact that they were afforded an additional layer of protection by a latticed grille only served to enhance the atmosphere of lyrical majesty and mystery of the Gloria in performance.
Vivaldi built the Gloria’s dozen small movements into a joyous praise song for God and God’s creation, with the music depicting moods from deep melancholy to bursts of happiness.
A deeply moving novel
In 2014 American author Kimberly Cross Teter published a young adult novel, Isabella’s Libretto, a work of historical fiction based on the girls’ orchestra at the Ospedale. Isabella, the novel’s protagonist, is an abandoned infant taken in by the orphanage. She grows to be a gifted young cellist with dreams of one day performing a work that she hoped Vivaldi would create especially for her.
But Isabella is also a free spirit and an annoyance to the Ospedale’s head nun, who sets out to tame her by requiring her to give cello lessons to a new pupil whose burned face testifies to her escape from the fire that killed her family. Isabella finds the grace within herself to rise to this challenge, even as the passing years school her in the bittersweet changes that adulthood brings. Her favorite teacher marries and leaves the orphanage, reminding Isabella that any girl who leaves is bound by the Pieta’s rules from ever performing music in public again.
And Isabella herself must weigh her love for her art with her growing preoccupation with thoughts of a young man who seems to want to pursue her. Her struggles with her decision about which future she wants for herself make for compelling reading and will draw in empathetic readers.
A resplendent picture book
Stephen Costanza’s 2012 jewel-toned picture book Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra mines the same fascinating ground to tell the story of the Ospedale for younger readers. In this treatment, orphan girl Candida becomes a transcriber of Vivaldi’s emerging works, creating sheet music for the use of the performers in the “Invisible Orchestra”—so called because the female players performed from places of concealment.
Candida’s value goes unappreciated, until the day a poem she composed finds its way into the sheet music, and her own creative gifts receive their due. In the author’s imagination, Candida’s sonnets provide Vivaldi with the inspiration he needs to produce his “Four Seasons,” perhaps his most famous and beloved work.
The Ospedale today
The Church of Santa Maria della Pietà still bears a nickname signifying it as “Vivaldi’s Church,” even though construction on its present building on the Riva degli Schiavoni was not finished until decades after his death. Today, the church stands adjacent to the Metropole Hotel, which was built up around a portion of the older Ospedale that had housed the music room.
The present church, constructed in the mid-18th century, recently underwent renovation after having fallen into disuse and disrepair and has reopened for concerts.
Today, the church’s social welfare outreach program is still in operation, serving its community with early education programs for young children and parents in crisis.
Additionally, a museum exhibiting some of the items associated with the centuries-old Ospedale is situated nearby.
Teaching the basics of music doesn’t always have to take place in school. While formal music education programs are vital for giving children an appreciation of music as one of the quintessential human activities—and are certainly needed when children hope to pursue a musical career—parents and families can provide numerous informal opportunities to develop their children’s musical gifts.
Music has an innate and immediate appeal to almost all children, so get creative and make it one of the focal points in your family life. The following suggestions, advocated by a variety of music teachers and family educators, can help point you in the right direction:
Turn “trash” into treasure.
Use ordinary items found around your home, office, or yard to produce interesting and captivating sounds.
For example, you can start an entire percussion section with a few kitchen and garden tools: Pots and pans, lids, watering cans, metal or wooden spoons, empty jugs, unbreakable bowls, water glasses, and other items can produce a wide variety of tones. Try banging the sturdier items together, or beat them with spoons or ladles to make an impromptu drum set.
Fill a series of glasses with different levels of water and gently strike them with a spoon. This latter activity is a wonderful chance to create your own STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lesson, as you and your child see firsthand how the amount of water in a glass affects the speed at which sound waves travel and therefore the pitch of the resulting sound.
Other items that can produce a variety of sounds for your child’s enjoyment include that bubble wrap you were about to throw away, pens and pencils, or even crumpled-up newspaper or wrapping paper.
Making his or her own musical instruments together with adults can add to the fun of a child’s musical education. In addition, reusing items that you would have thrown away can help your family gain a greater appreciation of the need for recycling and purposeful spending.
Numerous websites, put together by parents and teachers, offer lively selections of ideas and directions for making a rich array of simple instruments. An old box that may once have held tissue paper can be fitted with rubber bands to fashion a simple guitar. Plastic Easter eggs can be decorated and filled with dry rice, beans, or peas to become wonderful shaker instruments. A paper plate with jingle bells attached to it with string becomes a tambourine. And balloon skins stretched over the tops of a series of tin cans can become an exceptional set of drums.
After you create your own instruments, practice them together. See how many sounds you can coax them to produce, and even try writing and performing a musical composition using only the instruments you have made. Experiment together while emphasizing to your child that improvisation and exploration are more important than “perfection.”
Connect with real musical instruments.
If you can buy or borrow real musical instruments, bring them into your home whenever possible. Young children are likely to be especially tactile, so let them experience what a drum set, a clarinet, or a flute feels like in their hands. A visit to a local museum that has a music exhibit, or to a music store or university music department, can also provide this experience.
Investigate whether your community offers musical instrument lending libraries, which are designed to provide access to music education for all people, regardless of income. Such libraries are available in some locations in the United States, but residents of Canada are especially fortunate.
Toronto, for example, recently initiated a musical instrument lending program through its public library system. Library patrons can check out violins, guitars, drums, and other instruments, free of charge.
Bring live and recorded music from as many cultures and time periods as possible into your home. Practice your listening skills, and see if you and your child can recognize the sounds of the different instruments in a composition. Encourage your child to catch the beat by clapping, tapping a foot, or creating a dance in time with the music.
Hit the books.
Bring home a variety of music-themed books, including picture storybook classics like Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, written by Lloyd Moss and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman; or The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, with pictures by Marc Simont.
Older children will also find plenty of music-themed fiction in titles such as Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.
Your local bookstore or public library will likely offer all of these, and many others, as well as informational books about music and biographies of great musicians.
Unite music and art.
You can also look for coloring books that feature images of musical instruments or music performances. Additionally, a simple internet search using the keywords “musical instruments” and “coloring pages” will yield many free images to download and print for your child to decorate. Creating visual representations of musical instruments and concepts will provide a multi-sensory experience that can deepen your child’s connection to the related art of music.
Whether tone poems are enjoyed in a concert hall or played in a simplified arrangement in school or at home, they offer young music students a rich variety of musical experiences.
A tone poem is a musical composition designed for a full orchestra. It is designed to evoke, through the choice of instrumentation, tempo, and arrangement, concrete images and storylines in the minds and hearts of listeners. The titles of many tone poems further help the listener in that they acknowledge a composition’s roots in a famous legend, poem, picture, place, or historical event.
A tone poem can conjure up visions of majestic mountains, forests, and waterways; knights on horseback gliding over desert sands; the appearance of magical beings, or the tender feelings between two lovers. And a favorite tone poem can make audiences feel transported, mentally and emotionally, to long-past heroic ages, or into the pages of beloved works of literature.
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is often credited with inventing the form of the tone poem, also known as the symphonic poem, in the mid-19th century. In this era of romanticism, revolution, and rising national consciousness, the form flourished.
By the early 20th century, composers such as Igor Stravinsky were still writing richly orchestrated tone poems. However, the form began to shift toward using this type of colorful music as a background for dance performances, rather than as single-unit orchestral pieces.
Here are brief summaries of what makes only a few of the best-known tone poems memorable:
1. The Moldau
Czech composer Bedřich Smetana completed “The Moldau” after only 19 days of work in 1874. Since then, its central melody has become an iconic national symbol. The piece is one part of a six-section suite titled My Country, in which the deeply patriotic composer depicted the natural beauty and the rich cycle of history and myth of his native land.
“Moldau” is the German name for the Vltava River, which flows from high forested mountains through the country lowlands and straight through the center of Prague. Smetana’s piece is by turns mystical, forceful, lively, and majestic, as it conjures up, first, the river’s quiet patter, then its sweep through a folksong-filled plain, to its destination near the capital, the royal seat of the Bohemian kings.
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov debuted his orchestral suite Scheherazade in 1888, offering audiences a collection of musical trips to the stories of the Arabian Nights.
The deep, bold opening notes paint a powerful picture of Sultan Shahryar, and the sinuous lilt of the violin portrays his wife, the storyteller Scheherazade, with the later musical themes unfolding the stories she tells like the unrolling of a magic carpet.
The four movements of the suite tell the story of Sinbad and his ship on the ocean; the “Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” bringing out the full capacity of the woodwinds to evoke an air of mystery; the tender and richly soulful romance of the story of a young prince and princess; and a finale that brings in themes from each of the previous sections, culminating in vivid images of a festival and the destruction of a ship on a wild, tempestuous sea.
In 1899, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed and premiered his now world-famous tone poem “Finlandia” as part of a larger suite. Like Smetana, Sibelius was a patriot who used his music to challenge the rule of an empire over his small country. “Finlandia” was, in fact, originally written to be performed at an event protesting the Russian tsar’s censorship of the Finnish press.
The work begins with the boom of timpani and brass to establish a somber and foreboding setting. As woodwinds and strings enter the musical conversation, they help to weave the type of stately atmosphere found in a king’s great hall. After a burst of forceful sound bringing in the sense of the whirlwind of struggle animating the Finnish people, the mood lifts. The piece concludes on drawn-out notes evoking a deep sense of serenity and majesty, as if listeners were looking down on sweeping vistas of dark-green Finnish forests.
Soon after its composition, the central theme of “Finlandia” became popular worldwide, with many American communities using the melody for songs honoring cities, schools, and other organizations.
Walt Disney’s 1940 full-length orchestral cartoon movie masterpiece Fantasia is a contemporary tone poem in itself. The film incorporates Disney’s retellings and re-imaginings of the stories behind several of the best-known symphonic works, including French composer Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In Disney’s version, Mickey Mouse is the hapless student of magic pursued by a pack of enchanted brooms.
Dukas’ original soundtrack debuted in 1897. He based it on a folkloric tale by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the towering figures in the European literature of the Enlightenment. Dukas’ composition closely follows the sequence and spirit of Goethe’s piece by offering an opening that paints a picture of quiet, but magic-filled domesticity in the sorcerer’s workshop.
But then the apprentice enters, represented by a leitmotif uniting oboe, flute, clarinet, and harp. A burst of timpani perhaps signals a stroke of enchantment. Then, through the composer’s use of a triple-time march, the sorcerer’s army of brooms comes lumbering, and then sprinting, to vivid life, carrying one bucket of water after another.
Dukas masterfully uses strings to conjure up the flooding cascade of water that ensues before the sorcerer, accompanied by the gloomy moans of the bassoon, returns to chase away all the mischief.
A movie musical night can be one of the most enjoyable ways for families who love music to spend time together. Particularly when a child in the house takes voice or movement lessons, or plays an instrument, musicals can open up new doors for musical understanding and creativity. Whether you rent, buy, or stream them, these old-fashioned classic musicals offer great lyrics and danceable tunes, as well as engaging storylines that are suitable for all ages.
1. The Sound of Music
Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music (1965), starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, will likely top the list of favorite movie musicals for many families. One of the most recognizable and beloved of the great movie musicals, it tells the story of Maria, a young novitiate in a convent who starts work as a governess for a widower and his large family, only to fall in love.
Set in Austria at the time of the Nazi invasion that led into World War II, the plot offers a clear contrast between good and evil as the von Trapps struggle to remain true to their values and stage a perilous escape. The musical is based on the real-life experiences of Maria von Trapp, as told in her 1949 book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.
The many well-known songs from the musical include “Do-Re-Mi,” (“Do, a deer, a female deer…”). In addition to being one of the liveliest and easiest musical numbers for a young child to learn, the song is a great way to teach solfege, the art of training the ear to distinguish musical tones.
Other wonderful pieces on the soundtrack include the poignant coming-of-age love song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” the raucously funny “The Lonely Goatherd,” and the poignant “Edelweiss,” a folk song that the von Trapps use to express their love of their homeland and their sorrow at leaving it.
2. The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the series of children’s novels by L. Frank Baum, is another widely beloved family classic, with a score by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg.
Dorothy, who was whisked away from her home in Kansas by a tornado, finds herself in the magical Land of Oz. She makes friends with the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, and together they make their way down the Yellow Brick Road to find the wizard who can give each of them their heart’s desire; and in the case of Dorothy, a return to her home.
The Wicked Witch of the West does her best to thwart them, sending an army of flying monkeys to attack in a harrowing scene. However, after Dorothy and her friends defeat her, they reach the Emerald City and unmask the great wizard as a bumbling, ordinary man, with goodness triumphing over both the wizard’s cowardly bombast and the witch’s evil.
The now-iconic songs that Arlen and Harburg composed for the film include the sweeping ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which became not only the centerpiece of the movie, with its theme of love and longing, but a lifelong theme song for star Judy Garland.
3. Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain (1952), starring the phenomenal dancer and singer Gene Kelly, alongside comic master Donald O’Connor and the multitalented Debbie Reynolds, offers a warm-hearted story, memorable protagonists, and plenty of exuberant songs that have captivated generations. As the late movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, there are few rivals for Singin’ in the Rain as a viewing and listening experience of pure fun.
The musical is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent films were being outclassed by the new “talkies,” leaving numerous former stars literally speechless when their real voices couldn’t match their onscreen images.
Kelly plays a matinee idol who dislikes his co-star and falls in love instead with the ingenue played by Reynolds. Arthur Freed’s lyrics and Nacio Herb Brown’s music enhance the charm of the book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The film also offers O’Connor’s bouncy, show-stopping rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a lively trio performance by the three leads in “Good Mornin’,” and the kinetic magic of Kelly in the title number, sloshing, dancing, and singing his way against the shadows of a dark and rainy street.
4. The Music Man
The lively sound of “76 Trombones” is only one of the highlights in The Music Man (1962), created by Meredith Willson for the stage and later for the screen.
Robert Preston plays the title character, a traveling salesman—more aptly, a charming con man—named Harold Hill. In the sleepy days of 1912, right before the town’s Independence Day celebrations, Hill descends on River City to persuade residents that only he and the new marching band he is forming can—at the town’s expense—save them from modern corruption, such as a newly installed pool table.
“Ya Got Trouble,” Preston sings in one memorable song in his portrayal of Hill, as he tries to scare and con the town. “Right here in River City....With a capital ‘T,’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”
Hill mesmerizes everyone in the town, with the sole exception being young “Marian the Librarian,” portrayed by Shirley Jones. As the holiday nears, the completely unmusical Hill is about to be discovered. But before he can take his ill-gotten receipts and flee the town, he realizes that he’s fallen in love with Marian. He also suddenly finds it in himself to actually do the thing he only pretended to be able to do—lead a band—and he and the town are saved.
Any family hoping to introduce their children to the wonders of onscreen musical theater will find much to enjoy in these four classics and in the many more made during this same era of the great movie musicals.
For many young children, the percussion instruments are the most fun to play and learn. Striking, shaking, or clanging these instruments produces an immediate response that the child can hear or sometimes even see. This easily grasped one-to-one correspondence between the child’s actions and the instrument’s sound is a big part of the appeal.
Playing a percussion instrument is also valuable because it helps people of all ages improve their physical coordination, dexterity, and motor skills. In addition, percussion instruments give music students the chance to let loose creatively in ways that few other instrument types can equal. Researchers have even learned that drumming and practicing other percussion instruments can reduce stress and even improve the immune system.
For all these reasons and more, percussion instruments are justifiably popular with student musicians, professionals, and audiences around the world.
The following is a closer look at a few members of this truly global family of musical instruments. This list focuses on some of the more seldom-discussed instruments in the percussion family, and thus omits the piano and the many types of acoustic and electronic drums that are popular in the U.S.
The boom of the timpani
In Sergei Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf, an imaginative musical romp through the instruments of the orchestra, the crash of the timpani announces the arrival of the hunters.
Timpani, also known as kettledrums, entered the Western musical world during the Middle Ages, imported by returning Crusaders and Arabic warriors arriving in western and southern European ports. Timpani came to be used in connection with trumpets to herald the arrival of aristocratic cavalry troops onto a battlefield.
Timpani consist of large, round, copper-bodied drums shaped like half of a sphere. Their drumheads consist of sheets of plastic or calfskin stretched tight across the opening. A player produces sound by striking the instruments with sticks or mallets made of wood or tipped in felt.
Timpani can be tuned to produce a variety of pitches when their drumheads are loosened or tightened via an attached foot pedal. In a typical orchestra, a single musician will play four or more timpani in a range of sizes and pitches. Playing the timpani calls on all the performer’s skills of attention and sense of pitch, since a typical orchestral piece calls for multiple tuning changes.
The xylophone’s flexible range
The xylophone’s early history lies in Asia, most scholars believe, before it spread to Africa and then to Europe. The instrument’s name derives from an ancient Greek word that refers to its wood-like tones.
The common denominator among the many types of xylophones available today is that the typical xylophone consists of a set of keys, or bars, organized in octaves, like piano keys. Affixed beneath the keys are a series of resonators, or metallic tubes, which produce the sound. Xylophones can be simple toys for the youngest children or sophisticated, multi-octave orchestral instruments.
The xylophone player strikes the keys with a mallet. Mallets are produced in varying degrees of softness or hardness; changing the pitch of the xylophone involves using a different type of mallet or changing the way one strikes the keys.
The xylophone’s close relatives in the percussion family include the larger and more mellow-toned marimba, the smaller and jingly-voiced glockenspiel, and the vibraphone.
The Jazz Age vibraphone
Invented in the 1920s, the vibraphone is distinguished by its metal keys and resonators and by the addition of little spinning discs, or fans, in its interior. These small discs are electrically powered and are arranged under the keys and over the resonators.
A player uses felted or wool-tufted mallets to strike the keys. He or she tunes the vibraphone by means of a motor that turns a rod connected to the discs. The resulting sound is the type of shifting, sliding pitch that’s referred to as vibrato when produced by the human voice.
The vibraphone has found extensive use in the popular jazz repertoire of artists such as Lionel Hampton. The instrument’s first appearance in an orchestra was in the 1937 Alban Berg opera Lulu.
The cymbals – the orchestra’s alarm clock
The crashing of the cymbals in the orchestra makes everyone take notice. A set of these ultra-loud percussion instruments consists of a pair of large discs, ranging in size from 16 to 22 inches in diameter. These discs are typically fashioned of spun bronze.
A player hits the cymbals together, or in the case of suspended cymbals, strikes them with a mallet. In general, larger cymbals produce lower sounds.
The waterphone’s New Age appeal
The waterphone is a newer innovation in percussion. Patented in the 1970s and based on a Tibetan water drum and other instruments, the waterphone consists of a bowl of water, a resonator, and a series of differently sized metal rods. A player uses a mallet, bow, or his or her own fingers to produce sound by striking the rods.
The vibration causes the water to shift in the bowl, thus altering the shape of the resonance chamber and creating a whole range of gliding sounds and echoes. Musicologists have described the waterphone’s sound as mysterious and otherworldly, and the instrument is noticeable in many television and film soundtracks.
The triangle’s thousand-year-old lilt
The triangle is a simple steel bar bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle, with part of one corner left open. The player strikes the instrument with a simple steel rod.
In use at least since the Middle Ages, the triangle often featured an attached set of jingly rings until the early 19th century. As European audiences of the 1700s demanded music in the Turkish style, Western musicians paired the triangle, the cymbals, and the bass drum into an ensemble with the aim of replicating the popular Turkish Janissary sound.
The triangle’s piercing pitch is audible even over the sounds of a full orchestra. Accordingly, classical composers tend to use the triangle sparingly, often to add punctuation to a composition.
At Music Training Center (MTC) in Philadelphia, children can take lessons in music and voice training. They can also participate in an a cappella vocal ensemble, Rock Band classes, or a number of high-quality musical theater productions. Over the years, Music Training Center has nurtured the talents of a number of promising young musicians and performers.
The musical theater component is one of the organization’s signature programs. Kids in the upper elementary, middle school, and early high school grades can participate in its Main Stage musical production. Younger kids work on their own Junior Stage and Mini Stage productions. Popular musicals serve as an excellent way to engage kids with learning the basics of musical theater stagecraft.
Experts in the performing arts have noted musical theater’s ability to develop a wide range of essential talents and skills in children who are considering making any branch of acting or performing a lifelong career. Further, musical theater training can lay the foundation for the kind of self-confidence, physical and mental stamina and agility, and personal presentation skills that will enhance a young person’s performance in any other type of career later on.
There are many reasons to encourage your child to participate in musical theater. Here are four:
1. Musical theater programs are available throughout the country
The MTC program is only one of many across the country that focus, either year-round or as a special summer experience, on the wealth of benefits that participation in a musical theater production can provide for children.
The Performers Theatre Workshop in New Jersey, the Music Institute of Chicago, and San Francisco Children’s Musical Theater are only a few more examples of organizations that offer this kind of vibrant and engaging—and potentially life-changing—programming.
2. Musical theater helps teach movement, communication, and confidence.
For example, kids who participate in musical theater training learn a whole set of movement skills. These skills can improve coordination, kinetic awareness, and overall fitness. In addition, training the voice to perform songs in a musical theater production tends to strengthen the vocal chords. They also benefit the performer’s overall voice presentation. This is a helpful tool for leaders and communicators in any field.
Experts in teaching musical theater additionally point out that confidence is among the main takeaways from participation for many kids. Musical theater can take performers far beyond their familiar comfort zones. A student who primarily views herself as an actor might be asked to sing in a particular production. Another who thinks of himself only as a dancer might be called on to learn and speak lines of dialogue to convey an emotional experience.
These activities might at first give young performers a case of nerves. Ultimately, however, this type of multifaceted training can open doors onto new ideas, build new skills, and create a sense of accomplishment in ways that stay meaningful over a lifetime.
3. Musical theater boosts self-esteem.
One dissertation-related study, published in 2017 under the auspices of Concordia University-Portland, found that music and theater studies, individually, offer enormous potential. They can help middle school students develop their self-esteem and their scholastic achievement.
The study goes even further by exploring the ways in which the combination of the two subjects in musical theater can lift up middle school students’ sense of self-worth and facilitate their achievement in a number of ways.
In this particular study, about a dozen suburban private school students in Minnesota took part in staging a musical theater event. The researcher used direct observation, interviews, school records, and Likert scale surveys to gauge the degree to which the students engaged in a positive or negative way with the experience.
The study concluded that if a student came into the production with already-high levels of self-esteem, he or she did not experience an additional boost of self-esteem from participation. On the other hand, if a student had a lower level of self-esteem before the production, he or she was more likely to develop more openness to being flexible and taking on novel tasks during the course of the production. These students also showed increased comfort with the process of change during the production.
4. Musical theater is fun!
One remaining important aspect of performing in musical theater: it's fun. Kids of all ages enjoy meeting familiar or intriguing characters from movies, books, or TV shows translated onto the stage.
When they take on the personas of these characters themselves, they can find creative new ways to express themselves. They can also deepen their awareness of their own emotions and let their imaginations take them on new adventures.
According to the National Association for Music Education, there are a few important qualities that make for an outstanding music teacher. These include strong communication skills, an understanding of how to make learning the rudiments of music worthwhile, the ability to command respect, and a capacity for forging emotional connections with students.
Any list of the world’s notable music teachers throughout history would include the following talented individuals, who were also accomplished composers. Read on to learn about their lives, their music, and what they taught their students.
Antonio Vivaldi – Leader of a girls’ orchestra
By the time of his death in the mid-18th century, Italian composer and priest Antonio Vivaldi had authored hundreds of pieces of church music, concerti, operas, and other compositions. Best known today as the composer of The Four Seasons series of concerti, he exemplified the Baroque sensibility. His music is filled with complex, bravura passages that highlight the solo capabilities of individual instruments.
Vivaldi was also a teacher, working at several different schools of music over his career. When he was just 25 years old, he became master of violin with the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian school for orphaned children. While serving in this capacity over some 30 years, he managed to compose the bulk of his major creative works.
At the Ospedale, the boys were taught skilled trades, and the girls learned music. Vivaldi’s leadership of the girls’ orchestra and chorus brought international fame to the school. The group performed at religious services and often at special events intended to make an impression upon powerful visitors. The girls performed, however, concealed behind a set of gratings, supposedly for the purpose of safeguarding their modesty.
Antonio Salieri – Villainous or defamed?
Thanks in part to Milos Forman’s movie Amadeus, the dominant image of Antonio Salieri is a jealous villain who helped to drive his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to an untimely death—or possibly poisoned him. But recent investigations have shown that there was likely far less substance to the feud between the two men.
Newer biographies and recent performances and recordings of his music, including an album by Cecilia Bartoli, are beginning to show us that Salieri was a talented composer, with a personality that may have been cantankerous. Newer research also shows that he was viewed by contemporaries as a generally friendly, industrious, and occasionally even humorous man.
Salieri’s creative output includes several operas in multiple languages, as well as chamber music and works for sacred occasions.
Only six years Mozart’s senior, Salieri would live to the age of 74 and eventually see his powers as a composer dwindle, though he took on a roster of exceptionally gifted pupils. These included Ludwig van Beethoven, the German operatic composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert. Historians recount the story of how Salieri spotted the seven-year-old Schubert’s talent and began teaching him the basics of music theory. After Mozart’s death, Salieri even instructed Mozart’s young son.
In 2015, a short composition created jointly by Mozart, Salieri, and a third composer was unearthed from the archives of the Czech Museum of Music. The following year, a harpsichordist in Prague gave the work its first public performance in 230 years.
Nadia Boulanger – A “hidden figure” in music
Nadia Boulanger earned international fame as a conductor and teacher of musical composition. Born in 1887, she was the daughter of Ernest Boulanger, a renowned voice teacher at the Paris Conservatory. She studied at the conservatory with composers Charles-Marie Widor and Gabriel Fauré, then began a career teaching both private lessons and classes. At age 21, she received a second place honor in the Prix de Rome competition for a cantata she had composed.
Boulanger’s sister, who died young, was also a talented composer. In fact, after her sister’s death, Boulanger deemed her own work as a composer to be of no further use and stopped creating entirely. However, she continued to both promote her sister’s work and to teach others. By the early 1920s, she was working at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.
Boulanger went on to become the first female conductor to work with the New York Philharmonic and other American orchestras. She taught in the Washington, DC area during the Second World War. In 1949, she earned the position of director of the American Conservatory.
Boulanger’s first American student was Aaron Copland, and she later taught Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and a host of other noted composers. She lived to be 92 years old, but never in her long life wrote a textbook outlining her ideas on music theory. Rather, she exerted a strong and nurturing personal influence on her pupils. She worked to give them an in-depth understanding of the technicalities of music while enhancing their individual gifts of composition and expression.
Zoltán Kodály – The centrality of the voice
Zoltán Kodály, one of the best-known 20th century Hungarian composers, was also a scholar of the folk music of his country. Along with his contemporary Béla Bartók, he became one of the foremost collectors of traditional Hungarian songs. Kodály’s own creative compositions include the massive Psalmus Hungaricus, first performed in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the joining of the cities Buda and Pest.
Kodály was also a contemporary of Boulanger and studied with Widor in Paris. He achieved renown for establishing the building blocks of what is today known as the Kodály Method, used by music teachers around the world.
The Kodály Method works with the understanding that young children learn music best by doing, and that the body of traditional songs and dances of their own countries should form the core of their musical education, supplemented with the folk music of numerous other cultural traditions.
Kodály’s system additionally puts great emphasis on the power and flexibility of the human voice as the first musical instrument. His method stresses singing as the best way to develop musical understanding and skill.