Ask any professor of musical composition about what can be taught and he’ll tell you anything, with the notable exception of melody. The ability to consistently write great melodies is a gift capriciously bestowed that cannot be shared. Even defining what makes a melody great defies analysis. The brain seems hardwired to respond to melodies that are universally described as beautiful. The melodies most resonant are in the style developed in Italy and Germany; they seems to generate the same response across the globe. A beautiful melody erases all cultural and national boundaries. Below are a few in no particular order other than as they occurred to me. Some are better known than others, but all grip the listener. These melodies supplement the ones I presented last April.
Mosè in Egitto was written in 1818 for the San Carlo in Naples. The following year Rossini added the famous prayer that convinces God to part the Red Sea. The melody is not developed; it’s just repeated by different members of the cast and then sung by all. When you have a tune as stunning as this one no development is needed. Dal tuo stellato soglio
Otto Nicolai is known for his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor and for co-founding the Vienna Philharmonic. His second opera is Il Templario based on Scott’s Ivanhoe. The adagio concertato from the first act finale is of exceptional beauty. His death from a stroke at age 38 was an incalculable loss to opera. Il Templario Act 1 adagio concertato
Bellini’s Norma is full of great melodies. Qual cor tradisti comes near the end of the opera when Norma and Pollione admit their transgressions prior to their immolation.
Rosmonda d’Inghilterra is an opera composed by Donizetti in 1829. It was largely forgotten until 1975 when it was discovered by Patric Schmid, co-founder of Opera Rara. Its neglect is mysterious as it’s first rate Donizetti. The Act 2 scene 1 duet between Eleonora (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Enrico (Henry II of England) contains a long duet which includes one of opera’s most beautiful melodies. The two muse over their lost love. The opera, like many of the composer’s infrequently performed works, deserve more frequent stagings. Interestingly, Otto Nicolai’s first opera bears the same title.
Verdi’s third opera, and first success, Nabucco contains a chorus of such power and immediacy that it has become Italy’s unofficial national anthem. When the Met brought the opera back in 2001 after a 40 year hiatus the great chorus was repeated. It was the first encore at the Met in almost a century. Va Pensiero
The andante from Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat major is one of the most beautiful melodies in all the chamber music repertory. The composer could easily have used it for one of his songs. Cellists are forever grateful for Schumann’s gift to the instrument.
O mio babbino is the soprano aria from Puccini’s one act opera Gianni Schicchi. Like its counterpart in Tosca it stops the action like a red light, but it’s so beautiful that no one cares.
Gluck, das mir verblieb is from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. The melody is sung by the soprano and tenor in the first act and by the tenor alone at the conclusion of the third and final act. The singer is the inimitable Joseph Schmidt. No one else produces the lyric line he was master of.
Mahler’s 8th Symphony is a super spectacular that had over a thousand performers at its initial appearance. Obviously, it’s not done very often because of the enormous resources needed to perform it. Its premiere was the only unqualified success that Mahler enjoyed as a composer. The last few minutes of the gigantic two movement symphony contain some of the most beautiful music in the orchestral repertory. Leonard Bernstein’s reading of the work is particularly effective as was all his work with Mahler’s scores. Mahler 8 finale Bernstein Vienna Phil
Rachmaninov produced only three works over the last 30 years of his life, so busy was he as a piano soloist. By many accounts, the greatest of the 20th century. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tour de force for piano and orchestra. The 18th variation is exceptionally lovely and is often used as an adornment for other works.