As the school summer term begins, we've curated a list of ten pieces which demonstrate the wide range and diversity of orchestral music, for those in Key Stage Three. The pieces range from the Italian renaissance grandiosity of Vivaldi through symphonic dances and film scores, all the way to the work of cutting-edge composers who are still pushing the limits of orchestral music today.
Please share our Spotify playlist with any Key Stage Three students who are keen to expand their musical knowledge and keep reading to find out more about each piece.
1. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: Summer (1717)
Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian composer and in 1717 he decided to compose a piece of music inspired by each of the four seasons of the year. He was also a talented violinist which is why he writes very fast and difficult music for the solo violin that sounds very impressive!
In this last part of the piece, Vivaldi writes exciting music that conveys the warm sunny days of summer in Italy, although many people believe that this part of the piece is so angry because Vivaldi had terrible hayfever and hated summer!
2. Fanny Mendelssohn, Oratorium (1831)
Fanny Mendelssohn was a German composer who wrote over 460 pieces in her lifetime. This is particularly impressive as many people at the time didn’t think that women should be composers, but Mendelssohn didn’t let this stop her.
This piece was written at a time when music was starting to move away from the stricter rules of classical music and towards the freer styles of today. At the same time, there was also a pandemic sweeping across Europe and so Mendelssohn decided to write this piece based on words from the Bible as a response. Although it might sound quite traditional to us now, at the time, the way the composer boldly uses melody would have seemed very modern.
3. Satie, Parade (1917)
Another piece where the composer uses ideas boldly and playfully is “Parade” by Satie. Erik Satie was a French composer who is considered to have been very ahead of his time. A lot of people when he was alive didn’t appreciate his music but years later lots of other composers were inspired by his work.
This piece was written for a ballet that tells the story of four circus acts performing on the street in an effort to tempt people in to see the show. The acts include a Chinese conjurer, a little American girl (who among other things imitates Charlie Chaplin and the sinking of the Titanic), and acrobats. The music jumps often between different styles and uses strange objects as instruments such as a typewriter and a siren. The costumes for the first production were designed by the artist Picasso and were equally as bizarre as the music.
4. Ravel, Bolero (1928)
Sometimes composers like to write music by repeating an idea on a loop, changing it somehow each time. We call this repeated idea an ostinato. Maurice Ravel uses an ostinato in his piece "Bolero". The melody keeps going around in circles but by using different combinations of instruments each time he creates a growing tension throughout the music and keeps it interesting.
This piece is also inspired by a type of dance. A bolero is a slow Spanish dance normally performed in ballrooms. It became widely recognised following it's use by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean, in their Olympic gold-wining performance in 1984.
5. Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1957)
Leonard Bernstein wrote orchestral music inspired by dances. He wrote the musical “West Side Story” in 1957 which has been performed a lot of times on stage and is also a film. The musical is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" but is set in New York City in the 1950s.
The Symphonic Dances is a combination of all of the dance pieces from the musical including a cha-cha and a mambo.
6. Kaija Saariaho, Verblendungen (1982)
Kaija Saariaho is a Finnish composer living in Paris who likes to experiment with combining live music and electronic sounds.
This piece is written for orchestra and electronic sounds. It is called “Verblendungen” which means Sparklings. The piece starts with big orchestral impacts which gradually become weaker and dissolve into a mysterious and intricate musical world. For most of the piece, the live musicians and the electronic sounds blend together which makes it feels mysterious but halfway through there is a loud and dramatic electronic climax.
7. Steve Reich, Three Movements (1986)
Steve Reich is an American composer who is known for writing minimalist music. Minimalist music uses a very small number of ideas to make a long piece. Reich very often uses short ideas repeated lots to make his music. You can hear this happening in his piece Three Movements. The piece starts with just a pulse which is passed around the orchestra and then a repeating pattern grows over the top.
8. John Williams, Star Wars Theme (1963)
Orchestras have become very widely used for soundtracks in movies. John Williams is an American composer known for his film soundtracks. He wrote the music for Harry Potter, Jaws and Jurassic Park and his most famous soundtrack is probably the Star Wars theme.
Williams uses the orchestra to make us think of distant space travel and exciting sci-fi scenes. The key to his success as a film composer is his ability to write music that people remember easily. This means that people watching a film can easily associate certain themes with certain characters, plus they will be able to remember the catchy tune long after seeing the film.
9. Trish Clowes, Radiation (2014)
Jazz is a very free style of music, normally based on improvisation. This means that the performers make the music up as they go along. For a long time, people thought that you couldn’t write jazz music for orchestras.
Trish Clowes is a jazz saxophone player and composer living in London. In 2014 she teamed up with BBC Concert Orchestra to record an album of orchestral jazz called Pocket Compass. Radiation is the first track from this album. After a slow introduction, the orchestra comes in with jazzy chords and a beat. Clowes improvises a melody on the saxophone over the top.
10. Max Richter, Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (2012)
Composers these days are still inspired by composers from hundreds of years ago as well as more recent ones. Max Richter is a British composer who is mostly influenced by minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. He also likes the music of composers who experiment with electronics in their music such as Kaija Saariaho. In 2012 he was inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and decided to rewrite it in his own style.
As a result of all of these influences from all of history, Richter’s own version of "The Four Seasons" combines Vivaldi’s complicated violin writing with minimalism and electronics to create a new composition using the same ideas as the original piece but in a whole new style.