The universe is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can imagine – Richard Feynman
Well, a great melody is more mysterious than the universe. John Stuart Mill was said to worry that the number of great melodies was finite and that we would soon exhaust the supply. When I first heard the probably apocryphal statement a long time ago I thought it amusing. Now after a lifetime of hearing new music devoid of melodies, I think Mill was on to something.
Humans seem to have no difficulty in recognizing a beautiful tune; but only a rare handful are capable of creating one. It is accepted by all that an interested student can be taught all the components of musical composition save how to write a melody that will catch the emotions of listeners. Melody appears to be a gift from God that He bestows with the rarest grace.
Once a great tune has been written, performed, or recorded it has a concrete form and is available to anyone who wishes to hear it. Where was it before the composer created it? I don’t wish to wade through the swamp of metaphysics only to emerge still puzzled, so I’ll dodge the issue and pretend it appeared out of nowhere – like the universe.
It is possible to write great music devoid of beautiful tunes. Most of Beethoven’s symphonies are not noted for their awe inspiring melodies – eg, the first movement of his 5th Symphony. Where the need for melody is most telling is, of course, opera.
The great bulk of the standard operatic repertoire starts with Mozart and ends with Richard Strauss. There are a few works written before or after these composers with memorable melodies, but virtually all the great tunes you’re likely to hear in performance were written between 1781 and 1942. If we include lieder, the date can be moved to 1948 – the year before Strauss’ death.
The composers with the greatest melodic gifts are, in my opinion Mozart, Schubert, Bellini, Chopin, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Gershwin. I know I’ve omitted some really great musicians – the list is just a personal choice. Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the two greatest melodists were Bach and Verdi. The music below is presented in the order in which they were written.
First, two selections by Mozart – neither from one of his operas. The second movement of his Piano Concerto #21 is everywhere celebrated for its extraordinary beauty. Maurizio Pollini is the soloist on this recording. His last composition is his unfinished Requiem Mass. It was completed by his student Franz Süssmayr. The Lacrimosa was interrupted by Mozart’s death near its conclusion. It is a piece of stunning emotional content which is heightened by the circumstance of its being Mozart’s last musical utterance.
Schubert’s melodic gift was apparent from the start of his brief, but incandescent career. Gretchen am Spinnrade was written when he was 17 and is his first great song – he wrote more than 600. Its text is taken from Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust. The piano accompaniment depicts the motion of the spinning wheel. The vocal line encapsulates Gretchen’s confusion and ardor over her encounter with Faust. What’s unfathomable is that the composer was the same age as his subject. The soprano is Jessye Norman. Someone said of Schubert’s lyric gift that he could do in three minutes what it took Verdi or Wagner three hours to accomplish – in the latter’s case sometimes a lot longer.
Schubert’s Trout Quintet was composed when he was 22. It differs from the usual string quintet in that the fifth instrument is a double bass. It was written for Sylvester Paumgartner a wealthy Austrian music lover. He requested that it include a section based on Schubert’s song ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’). The 4th movement is a set of variations on the song. It’s one of the happiest pieces in music. Trout Quintet 4th Movt
Vincenzo Bellini was born (1801) four years after Schubert’s death. Dead at 33 he left behind melodies of unique beauty which were admired by all who came after him – even Wagner. Prendi! L’anel ti dono appears in the first scene of La Sonnambula. The two lovers, Elvino and Amina declare their love for each other. Her sleepwalking, hence the title, throws a kink into their relationship, but true love wins out at the end. Nicolai Gedda and Mirella Freni provide more voice than is usually heard in this opera. Gedda’s singing is particularly fine. The melody is exquisite.
Chopin was especially influenced by Bellini. He is said to have asked for Ah non credea mirarti (also from Sonnambula) to be played when on his deathbed. Chopin’s unique gift was to make the piano, a percussion instrument, sing. The influence of bel canto opera on the Polish composer is shown to great effect by the Nocturne in D Flat, Op. 27/2. The Czech pianist Ivan Moravec brings this magical piece to life better than any other pianist I have heard.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote so many grand melodies that picking just a couple is daunting. D’amor sull’ali rosee is the last bel canto aria from the last bel canto opera – Il Trovatore. Like Mozart , he wrote a great Requiem Mass. Initially performed on the one year anniversary of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni’s death (22 May 1874), it is now the most performed large choral work worldwide. It’s Lachrymosa , like Mozart’s, has a restrained and solemn grace to it. The mass was composed when Verdi and his public thought his opera writing days were over.
Tchaikovsky’s melodies are rich and distinctive. His most enigmatic one begins his Piano Concerto #1. It is grand and so exceptional that the listener is mystified by its disappearance after four minutes. It deserves a return later in the movement, but the composer felt it had served its purpose and gave it no reprise. A very strange move from a composer who used repetition to great advantage throughout his works. The melody that opens his Violin Concerto is as lush as any conceived. Tchaikovsky doesn’t abandon it as he did with the piano concerto just mentioned. The interlude in Act 2 of Sleeping Beauty is beyond beautiful even by Tchaikovsky’s stratospheric standard.
With Giacomo Puccini Italian opera assimilated all the modern techniques that characterized early 20th century composition. He was able to use all the components in a unique way. He could sound modern while not sacrificing melodic beauty. But he had no successor. When he died in 1924 Italian opera was buried with him.
The transition of Act 2 scene 1 to the second scene of Madama Butterfly is set to music of ethereal beauty. Its dramatic aptness is virtually unequaled. It captures the plight of the trusting young Japanese girl shabbily used by an American naval officer. Coro a bocca chiusa is the piece’s Italian name. To English speakers it’s the ‘Humming Chorus’. To everyone it’s sublime. A chorus with mouth closed and plucked strings conveys the pathos of Cio-Cio-san’s otherwise silent vigil that will end with her death.
Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot is the last great Italian aria. Franco Corelli’s interpretation of the aria and the entire tenor role remains the definitive one.
Richard Strauss was capable of writing music of dazzling complexity as well as constructing melodies equally impressive. An example of the former ability is the ferocious debate among five Jews about the nature of God. It’s in his one act opera Salome, after the play by Oscar Wilde. It shows how wide was his musical palette. The melodic content of the Final Trio from Der Rosenkavalier is so moving that Strauss asked for it to be performed at his funeral. Under Georg Solti’s direction it was. Just as Italian opera followed Puccini to the grave, the same fate befell German opera with Strauss’ demise. In the last year of his life he composed four valedictory songs that were not performed until they year following his death – 1950. The last of these is Im Abendrot (At sunset). At the final line – ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (‘Is this perhaps death?’) – Strauss quotes the transfiguration theme from his tone poem Death and Transfiguration written 60 years earlier. The effect is very moving. The singer is the great American soprano Renée Fleming.
George Gershwin should have been the American Verdi, but brain cancer took his life at age 38. Leonard Bernstein said he had a melodic gift equal to that of Tchaikovsky. His premature demise is still palpable. First the big theme from Rhapsody in Blue continuing to the end. Leonard Bernstein is both soloist and conductor. Summertime from Porgy and Bess is sung by a secondary character in Gershwin’s only opera. So vast was his melodic armamentarium that he could spend a million dollar tune on a peripheral part. The soprano is Leontyne Price.
There are many more melodies of beauty and distinction than I have room for here. There does seem a dearth of recent ones. Perhaps Mill was right. While I can’t define it in advance, I know a great melody when I hear it.