Horsing around

horseToday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, which is a moveable feast, unlike its western counterpart that always falls on 1 January. It also differs in adopting a particular zodiac animal, repeating the association after every 12-year cycle. Today, therefore, marks the Chinese New Year of the Horse, succeeding the Year of the Snake. People born in a Year of the Horse (more recently 1955, 1967, 1979 and 1991) are reckoned to be clever and kind, but independent and impatient. If you fit the year, how did you fit the potted description?

The horse features in Chinese mythology as part of a wonderful story involving a girl, filial duty, a legends-silkwormhorse, an unlikely offer of marriage and a silkworm, but you’ll have to Google the details of that one for yourself. Today we take a quick glance over some of the music that has featured horses in classical and folk music around the world. The animal doesn’t lend itself too obligingly to portrayal in sound, except for its galloping motion and whinnying sound.

ethnic-horce-raceChinese folk music has numerous references to horses darting across the plains, their velocity reflected by many a skilled player of the erhu, the ancient, 2-stringed bowed instrument. You’ll get the idea if you listen to Chen Jun‘s masterly performance of Horse-Racing (Naxos World Music 76011-2) that also has echoes of The Flight of the Bumble Bee thrown in for good measure; and any horse fancier in Hong Kong will also recognise in the piece a rhythmic reminder of Rossini‘s William Tell overture. The opera’s riding-to-the-rescue passage is the music used to introduce the weekly horse-racing broadcasts from the city’s famous Happy Valley.

Horses neighing can be heard in jolly romps such as the Finale from Ibert‘s Divertissement (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80197) while the donkey’s eeyore pops up in Saint-SaënsCarnival of the Animals (8.554463) and Mendelssohn‘s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture (8.554433).

But it’s the characteristic rhythms of a horse’s gait that has mostly attracted the attention of composers, be it either the triple-unit feel of its ‘gal-lop-ing’, or the duple-unit effect of a ‘can-ter’.

Confusingly, however, the 19th-century European social dance called the Galop is written in duple metre. You can find european-cavalrynumerous examples in the catalogues of the Strauss family. Johann Strauss the Elder even wrote a Chinese Galop in 1827 (Marco Polo 8.223483), though the ethnic connection isn’t too easy to spot as it’s doubtful he had much in-depth knowledge of the Middle Kingdom! And it’s not unusual to find a Strauss programme including Suppé’s overture to his comic operetta Light Cavalry (Marco Polo 8.223683) with its famous depiction of horses geeing-up before curtain-up.

A less civilised, utterly sarcastic gallop occurs during the middle of the third movement of Shostakovich‘s Eighth Symphony (8.572392), cocking a snook at Stalin’s circus of atrocities that bookend the section. A similar romp can be found in the finale of his Sixth Symphony (8.572658).

erlkingThe perpetuum mobile finale of Beethoven‘s Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2, known as the Tempest, has had commentators suggesting that it was inspired by the sound of a horse galloping by Beethoven’s window, but this is unlikely to have been the case. The vivid portrayal of a horse galloping that is not in doubt, however, occurs in one of Schubert’s songs for voice and piano that brings alive Goethe’s supernatural account of the Der Erlkönig (8.554208). Schubert achieves this by writing swathes of repeated triplets in octaves for the pianist, a challenge that certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted.

The song tells of a boy as he rides with his father through the forest one dark night. He catches sight of the evil Erlking whose ghostly form snatches the lives of children. Terrified, he alerts his father, who is unable to perceive the imminent danger. By the time the couple arrive at their destination, the father finds his son already dead.

Written for much larger forces, Prokofiev‘s score for the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky was subsequently recast as a cantata Alexander-Nevsky(8.555710). It tells the epic, 13th-century story of the Russian people facing up to Teutonic invaders and the dramatic fifth movement, The Battle on the Ice, leaves you in no doubt as to the thunderous strength of massed warhorses of the day.

But let’s end on a lighter note with the challenge made to Shostakovich by a friend in 1927: the story goes that he bet him a hundred roubles he couldn’t orchestrate the song Tea for Two from the musical No, No Nanette in under one hour after a single hearing of the piece. Shostakovich took only 45 minutes, won the bet and named the arrangement Tahiti Trot (8.552129-30). It may be a spurious link to horses, but it’s a good story and a cracking piece of orchestration!

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