Where would we be without our heroes? Well, classical music would certainly be the poorer without the heroic thread that weaves through the catalogue. Works are branded heroic either by their general aura, the mention of the word in the title, or the name of a specific hero on which a piece is built. We would all have our individual list of ‘heroic’ works, if asked to compile one. The following small selection may resonate with your own; or it may throw up something worth getting to know, if you are not already familiar with a piece.
With this month marking the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss‘ birth, it was perhaps inevitable we would start with his tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) (8.571218). Strauss takes a subjective stance with this work, however, since it’s intended to be autobiographical. Casting himself in the title role, the work’s six sections include depictions of Strauss the protagonist before progressing through chapters of battles (critics carping at his work can be heard here), love, triumph over adversity, and the retreat from mortal life.
A less familiar Strauss hero, however, is the subject of his large-scale cantata Taillefer. This was the name of a medieval entertainer attached to the retinue of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, who lost his life when engulfed by the English forces. If it’s a work you don’t know, then you should tune into this year’s BBC Last Night of the Proms concert on September 13, when it will be getting a rare airing.
Immortalised in the novel by Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba was a Ukrainian Cossack who died a national hero following asuccessful battle against the Poles in 1628. Leoš Janáček cemented the warrior’s legendary status further in his symphonic rhapsody Taras Bulba (8.572695). The second movement recalls the death of his second son Ostap, captured by the Poles, hideously tortured and then beheaded in the closing bars. If you need cheering up after such a thought, then you could try Franz Waxman‘s jauntier music from the soundtrack to the film Taras Bulba (8.990034), which was produced in 1962 and is loosely based on Gogol’s original novel.
It wasn’t Chopin‘s idea to give his Polonaise Op. 53 (8.550360) the descriptive title Heroic, but it’s one that has stuck. The impetus came from George Sand, his lover and companion of many years, who was also among the many intellectuals who were fired up by the European Revolutions of 1848. When she heard the Polonaise Op. 53, she responded enthusiastically, engendering the nickname for the piece:
“The inspiration! The strength! The vigour! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on this polonaise should be a symbol, a symbol of heroicness!”
Click here to see if you agree.
Like Chopin, the Belgian-born César Franck spent his working life in Paris. In 1858 he became organist of the Basilica of Saint Clotilde, a position he retained until his death 32 years later. Hailed for his extraordinary gift for improvisation, he left a relatively small number of works for the organ, one of which is titled Pièce héroïque (8.554698). Written for the concert hall, not the church, it contains two principal melodies that vie with each other for supremacy. With its daring harmonic language and bold modulations as exemplified in its concluding section, maybe that’s why it qualifies for its heroic tag.
Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 3, Eroica (Heroic) (9.80021) is probably the most famous work on this theme. Its infamous background, however, reminds us how easily heroes can fall from grace. Has an emperor ever before or since so sharply felt the wrath of a musician as when Beethoven deleted the dedication of the piece to Napoleon Bonaparte, after the latter proclaimed himself Emperor and reneged on the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789?
But let’s end on a less testy note, with a mention of Philip Glass‘ six-movement Symphony No. 4, Heroes (8.559325). Having achieved success in 1993 with his Low Symphony, a reworking of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s classic rock album Low, Glass repeated the experiment three years later with another Bowie/Eno collaboration, Heroes, an album that drew its inspiration from the then-divided city of Berlin. The first movement, specifically titled Heroes, begins with horns sounding over a tramping rhythm in the bass; the harmonic and rhythmic activity then increases as elements of the original Bowie/Eno songs are distributed across the orchestral texture. Altogether, a truly heroic attempt at an unlikely synthesis of styles.