Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II – “Ol’ Man River”

Year: 1927

Album: Show Boat musical soundtrack

Show Boat is one of those watershed works of art in which a “before/after” line was created. The collaboration between Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Florenz Ziegfeld adapting Edna Ferber’s novel for Broadway marked the moment when the American musical, before an exclusive showcase for trivial comedy, became a legitimate marriage of spectacle and drama. This is when the serious musical play was born.

Show Boat covers the 1880s through the 1920s following a floating theater called the Cotton Blossom that travels along the Mississippi River. Characters, black and white (this was one of the first musicals to be racially integrated), live and work alongside each other in a once-booming industry. They love, hate, and hurt each other. They grew over right before the audience. They watch America change.

Its most famous song, “Ol’ Man River,” has rightfully earned its place as an American standard. The character Joe sings of the Mississippi River as a merciless force of nature and a metaphor of the white man’s endless cruelty or indifference towards other races (“He don’t say nothin’, he must know somethin’ / Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along”). Joe sings with spite, yet the grand orchestration transforms his slow words into a gospel-like prayer that finds hope and faith in an unyielding force, both natural and man-made.

Above is Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” as Joe in the 1936 film adaption, with a screenplay also by Hammerstein II. The character of Joe for the Broadway production was originally written for Robeson, but he was unavailable at the time and Jules Bledsoe filled the role. In addition to the film, Robeson would play Joe in the 1928 London premiere and two revivals on Broadway and in Los Angeles.

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Gioachino Rossini – “The Thieving Magpie”

Year: 1817

Album: La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”)

“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”

-Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

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Rossini’s playful, wicked melodramma, referenced in Murakami’s famous opening sentence, was also made famous in popular modern culture by Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, in which the famous overture plays bizarre contrast to the film’s ultraviolence. Speaking of bizarre, the overture to Rossini’s two-act opera is notable for leading with a startling snare drum, which must have scared the heck out of the unknowing Italian audience at the piece’s 1817 premiere in Milan.

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Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Kontakte”

Year: 1960

Album: Kontakte

German composer and Sgt. Pepper cutout Karlheinz Stockhausen helped popularize electronic music and the idea of aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition with his interesting, often controversial, approach to composition. My favorite Stockhausen piece is “Helicopter String Quartet,” in which a quartet literally performs in flying helicopters. He also thought 9/11 was a work of art.

Stockhausen’s most famous work is likely “Kontakte” (“Contacts”), completed in 1960. According to AllMusic, The score is divided into sixteen sections with many subsections, numbered I A–F, II, III, IV A–F, V A–F, VI, VII A–F,VIII A–F, IX A–F, X, XI A–F, XII A1BA2, XIII A, Ab, Ad, Ae, Af B–F, XIV, XV A–F, and XVI A–E [and F], but the idea of the piece is that you’re not supposed to know that there is any structure. A piano plays throughout, but it often comes and goes along with scattered noises both soft and booming. It all sounds like random noise, yet it’s all structured. Every noise has a place in the piece and serves a specific purpose.

I’m not going to pretend like I actually know what any of this means, but the piece has many moments of joy and dread. It sounds like some vile creature trying to bash and dance his head out of a piano. It’s unsettling, and it’s often very beautiful.

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Sergei Prokofiev – “Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78: 1 – Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke”

Year: 1938

Album: the Alexander Nevsky film soundtrack

Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer obsessed with Stravinsky’s ballets and the modern Russian poets dragging his country out from the Revolution years and into the modern world with exciting and challenging new styles. After many years writing and performing abroad, Prokofiev returned to the now Soviet-ruled Russia with the intent of writing Russian music celebrating Russian life.

One of Prokofiev’s best works is his score for Sergey Eisenstein’s epic film Alexander Nevsky. The score is arranged as a cantata and it is loud and abrupt and unsettling and sweeping and powerful and I’m sure I can find more adjectives but I’m going to stop now and let you listen and if you want to read more click here.

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Alice Whitfield – “Timid Frieda (Les timides)”

Year: 1968

Album: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording)

What a gorgeous and sad melody sung by Alice Whitfield, whose character in the famed off-Broadway play Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is singing over gentle keys and chimes of isolation and fear in the face of a new start in a new city. The phrase “Brave new fuck” has never sounded more eloquent.

“Timid Frieda (Les timides)”, as well as the rest of the soundtrack, was originally written by Jacques Brel, an influential French singer-songwriter born in Belgian who was stylistically Bob Dylan’s more theatrical French cousin, a sly yet serious songwriter who was also incorporating serious poetry and depth into pop music. But unlike Dylan, Brel was more influenced by cabaret, and so his songs were easier to translate to the stage (though I’m sure there were plenty of bad off-Broadway plays reinterpreting Dylan’s music in Greenwich Village in the ’60s). Brel’s most popular hits at the time were translated into English for the play, which was made in response to Brel’s decision to stop touring the year before. The 1975 film adaptation, in which Brel makes a special cameo, further established the popularity and reach of the play, which was already one of the longest-running off-Broadway shows of all time.

I’ve never seen the play, but the soundtrack is strong enough on its own to justify the listen. In 2003, David Bowie included it on his list of 25 favorite vinyls, and he would cover “Amsterdam” as a B-side to 1973’s “Sorrow.”

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Antonín Dvořák – “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, B. 178 (From the New World)”

Year: 1893

Album: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (New World Symphony)

Does the beginning sound like the Jaws theme song? It should. The story goes that John Williams stole that suspenseful two-note change from Dvořák’s most beloved work. The Czech Dvořák wrote this piece while living and composing music in New York City as the director of the National Conservatory of Music, and it became one his most successful pieces right away when it premiered at Carnegie Hall. Dvořák returned home after a few years of being homesick for beautiful green Bohemia, but New York’s influence, and his newly found love for black and Indian melodies, gave us this moving piece of music that was so good that Neil Armstrong took a recording of the symphony with him on mankind’s first trip to the moon. But the Jaws shout-out is cooler. Just kidding. Maybe.

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Steve Reich – “It’s Gonna Rain”

Year: 1965

Album: It’s Gonna Rain

According to NPR, Reich’s first official piece, composed about fifty years ago in San Francisco, happened by accident. Reich was playing with two identical tapes of a recording he made of Pentecostal preacher Brother Walter when the loops suddenly went out of synch with each other and produced the recording you hear.

In Reich’s own words: “Sometimes when people speak, they almost sing. Tape loops are little bits of tape that are spliced together so that they just go around and around and around and repeat themselves. And when you take a bit of speech like ‘It’s gonna rain,’ the way he says it, you really begin to hear the music of what he’s saying and what he says increasingly blended together so it’s hard to separate them.”

In 1965 it was impossible to escape the threat of nuclear war, with the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s assassination still fresh on everyone’s minds. For Reich, Brother Walter preaching “it’s gonna rain” was surely a sign of what was to come. The recording captures that uneasiness with a brilliant and influential use of minimalism.

Alex Ross, in his excellent book The Rest is Noise, says it best: “the machines essentially wrote ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ by themselves and [Reich] was smart enough not to stop them.”

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Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – “Somewhere”

Sondheim wrote the lyrics and Bernstein stole the music from Beethoven’s “Emperor Piano Concerto” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It’s beautiful and tragic in all the right ways for a proper Broadway ballad. Have you heard the Phil Collins version? Marianne Faithfull and Jarvis Cocker? Tom Waits? Bee Gees? Me Singing In The Shower version? (just kidding)

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Franz Liszt – “Bagatelle sans tonalité”

Before there was Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania. This Hungarian virtuoso pianist was considered the most technically skilled player of his age and, at one point, the greatest pianist who ever lived. His live performances were widely popular in his lifetime, comparable to how popular the Beatles were when they first came to the United States. It helped that he was an over-the-top guy who knew how to put on a good show. Alex Ross called him the Lady Gaga of his time, though I’m sure Gaga can’t play piano as well as Liszt.

This 1885 composition is just one example of Liszt’s crazy hands and taste for flair. Some critics hate his flashiness, but it’s hard to deny the man’s talent. This piece is also famous for being one of the first pieces by a major composer to explore a theme of atonality that Schoenberg would later perfect. Underneath its quick playful tone is a lack of structure that challenges the ideas of concrete organization in classical composition.

And now you know what that Phoenix song is about.

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