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ClassicsOnline Home » MARCHES (FAMOUS)
Famous Classical Marches
Martial music has a long history, as a device for
stirring soldiers to acts of valour or sometimes, if Marco Polo is to be
believed, for terrifying the enemy. The march itself, as a means, through
regular rhythm, of ensuring that the marchers proceed in step, may combine the
exhortatory and the deterrent, but can be used to express solemnity in a slow
march, light-heartedness in a quick march or triumph in a march of victory,
even if, with the poet, we believe there is no hope for those that march in
The present collection of marches opens with the famous Grand
March from Verdi's opera Aida. The opera itself was written to mark
not the opening of the Suez Canal, which had taken place a year before, but the
opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1871. It celebrates the triumphant return
of the Egyptian general Radames, bringing with him the signs of victory, a
lavish procession of soldiers, animals and captives, a spectacle that has
provided opportunities for directorial extravagance in more ostentatious
productions of the work.
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, in his incidental
music of 1893 for the patriotic pageant Karelia, subsequently arranged
as a concert suite, symbolized something of the national aspirations of his
country, at one time dominated by Sweden and Swedish culture and at another
threatened by the adjacent power of Russia. The Alla marcia from the Suite
is very familiar, often used out of its Finnish context as a cheerful and
Sweden itself is represented here by the composer Dag Wiren,
whose music has ranged from the high seriousness of the symphony to entries for
the Eurovision song contest. The Marcia from his 1937 Serenade for
Strings is a parody of the military march, but has enjoyed particular
popularity in Britain, where its opening, at least, is known as the
signature-tune of a long-running television series.
The nineteenth century was an age of nationalism. In Russia
musical nationalism was chiefly represented by the so-called Mighty Handful,
the five composers largely dominated by Balakirev. Tchaikovsky, not a member of
this group, was seen abroad as thoroughly Russian, not always to his credit,
while at home he seemed to belong to a more cosmopolitan school of composition.
His Marche slave of 1876 was written in response to a request
from Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory, for a piece in
aid of those wounded in the war that had broken out between Serbia and Turkey.
The march was originally known as the Serbo-Russian March and includes
three Serbian melodies as well as the Tsarist national anthem. The present
collection includes a march of a very different kind from Tchaikovsky's 1893
ballet Nutcracker, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, an accompaniment,
as the ballet opens, to a children's party that will turn to a dentist's
nightmare in the Land of Sweets.
Tchaikovsky had been impressed in Paris by the opera
Carmen, the work of Georges Bizet, who died in 1875 while this most successful
of his operas was still running. From his piano-duet Jeux d'enfants
(Children's Games) of 1871 he drew an orchestral Petite Suite that
includes a March, originally under the title Trompette et tambour
(Trumpet and Drum). The opera Carmen is set in Spain and shocked some by
its realistic treatment of low life. The gypsy factory-girl Carmen, arrested,
is set free by Don Jose, the soldier she has seduced, who deserts his post and
follows her to the mountains where her smuggler companions are concealed. The Smugglers'
March marks this episode in a story that leads to later disaster, as Don
Jose, rejected by Carmen, who has turned her attention to the toreador Escamillo,
kills the woman he had loved and who had caused his ruin.
The Rakoczy March, adapted by Berlioz, served a
particular patriotic purpose, celebrating, as it does, the early Hungarian
patriot and champion of the country against Austrian domination. Fascinated, as
so many contemporaries were, by Goethe's epic play Faust, Berlioz first
set eight scenes from the drama, later expanding this into The Damnation of
Faust. He made use of the march, played to enthusiastic audiences in Hungary,
and adjusted the geographic setting of an episode in Faust to allow its
Primarily a composer of music for the piano, his own
instrument, the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, son of a French father and a
Polish mother, resident in Paris but intensely patriotic, followed Beethoven's
example in including in the second of his piano sonatas a Funeral March.
This had been written in 1837, but was later inserted into the sonata as its
From the solemn and funereal Mozart returns the listener
to the triumph of enlightenment in the March of the Priests from the
last of his operas to be staged, The Magic Flute, a work that was
running in Vienna at the time of the composer's death in the winter of 1791.
The Magic Flute, inspired by Masonic ideals, follows the ordeals through
which the hero Tamino must pass before being admitted to the band of the illuminati
and finding again his Pamina.
Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 has had
an unfortunate effect on the composer's reputation, associating him inevitably
with British imperialism, at a time when, in the later words of Evelyn Waugh,
the map of the world was blushing red with that phenomenon. Elgar was, in fact,
a composer of a much less triumphalist cast. Nevertheless Land of Hope and
Glory, its words by A.C. Benson, incorporated the first of his five Pomp
and Circumstance marches into a Coronation Ode for King Edward VII
in 1902, although it may now be sung with tongue in cheek by a more cynical
generation, largely lacking either hope or glory.
Originally by profession a civil servant, Emmanuel Chabrier
was eventually able to devote his full attention to music. His brilliantly
orchestrated French march, Joyeuse marche, written in 1888, won
The Strauss dynasty of Viennese dance-music composers was
established in 1825 by Johann Strauss the elder. His son Johann was to follow
his example, helped by his younger brothers Josef and Eduard, for all of whom
their father had hoped for more established professions. The waltzes, cotillons,
galops, quadrilles and marches of the Strauss family, all of which had their
due place in the ball-room, were often topical in their titles and in the
occasions of their composition. Johann Strauss's Radetzky March was
written in 1848, the year before his death. It celebrated the victory of the
Austrian Imperial army under
Field-Marshal Johann Josef Wenzel, Count Radetzky von Radetz,
Italian forces at Custozza and was allegedly written in
the space of two hours.
Franz Schubert was nearing the end of his short life when
the elder Johann Strauss set up his own dance-orchestra in Vienna. Schubert
wrote three Marches militaires for piano duet, for his two
pupils, daughters of Count Johann Esterhazy, at whose country house at Zseliz
he spent some of the summer months of 1818. The first of the marches is the
most popular, here orchestrated by Peter Breiner.
A pupil of the great viola-player Lionel Tertis and of
the composer Frederick Corder, Eric Coates was until 1919 a professional
viola-player, thereafter turning his attention to composition, particularly of
light music. His march Knightsbridge, from the London Suite of
1933, became very familiar to British audiences as the signature-tune of a
popular wireless programme.
Norwegian musical nationalism is personified in the work
of Eduard Grieg, a composer of post-Culloden Scottish ancestry, trained in Germany,
but seeking inspiration in the music of his native Norway. In 1872 he wrote at some
speed incidental music for Bjornson's play Sigurd Jorsalfar (Sigurd the Crusader)
and later orchestrated three of the eight pieces. Of these the third, Homage
March, remains the best known.
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