If you are a parent trying to help your kids learn about great music that has stood the test of time, you may run into some terminology roadblocks, especially if you didn’t grow up learning about classical music yourself (as is the case for most of us).
The is the second of a two-part series where I unpack some of the common terminology you are likely to encounter as you begin to teach your kids about classical music. These are very simplified definitions…remember, we are training the affections here, not preparing our kids to be Jeopardy contestants.
Here’s our list:
- Chamber Music
- Symphonic Poem
We covered the first five in Part One — head HERE! Now, the remainder…
An opera is a big story-telling show where everyone sings, and no one talks. Pretty much, anyway. Operas are often in other languages and the style of singing can be a turn-off for kids. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Keep it fun. Remind your kids that music and singing styles are constantly evolving, and this is just what was really popular back in the day. Some composers wrote opera exclusively, others dabbled in the genre while continuing to produce other types of music. Let me introduce you to one of the specialists: Giuseppe Verdi. Opera was his thing. It’s all he did, and he was really good at it. Check out one of his most famous pieces, from the opera Rigoletto. This piece has been used over and over in television and movies — I promise you will recognize it!
An overture is pretty easy for children to understand. It is always instrumental and takes place at the beginning of a show (whether opera, ballet, musical). The overture gives you a taste of what’s to come, both in tone and in actually melodies. An overture often comprises little snippets of tunes that will show up later on in the show. A good overture creates a sense of anticipation, allowing an audience to settle into their seats and feel the joy of what’s to come! The overture from The Nutcracker is fun and familiar!
Take an opera and minus the sets, costumes, and all the moving around the stage. Then make the topic something from the Bible. Invite an orchestra, choir, and super talented soloists to participate. You’ve got yourself an oratorio. George Frederic Handel was the master of the genre. His most famous is Messiah, which has a little piece you’ve probably heard before:
A suite is a somewhat generic term. Back in the days of Handel and Bach, it kind of just meant a collection of several pieces of music. Handel’s Water Music was originally published as a trio of suites. In later years, the definition of a suite shifted a little bit. Ballet and opera composers found themselves with loads of great music that was limited in its use – no ballerinas, no sets, and no singers meant nobody got to hear their music. That not being acceptable, composers began condensing their work into orchestral suites that could be performed apart from the rigmarole (why yes, I DID google that spelling) of costumes and performers. It was a win for the composers because it gave continued life to the music they worked so hard to create. The Snow Maiden Suite from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is a great one for kids. It was originally an opera, condensed down into a perform-able suite. Here is an excerpt:
Also known as a tone poem, the symphonic poem came into fashion during the Romantic era. It is pretty much exactly what you might guess from the title — a poem told through music. Symphonic poems were intended to convey specific content from other sources – poems, short stories, novels…even paintings or other works of art. Russian composer Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia is a great example. Borodin’s own words tell us exactly what he is going for:
In the silence of the monotonous steppes of Central Asia is heard the unfamiliar sound of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the bizarre and melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan approaches, escorted by Russian soldiers, and continues safely on its way through the immense desert. It disappears slowly. The notes of the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony, which dies away as the caravan disappears in the distance.”
See if you can hear what he is talking about!
I hope this has helped you understand classical music terminology a little better — the more empowered you feel, the better equipped you will be to teach your kids!