Celebrated American composer (and Massachusetts native) Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Anyone who has pulled an “all-nighter” in college, studying for a test or writing that paper to make deadline, is smiling knowingly at the Bernstein quote. And at the start of a new year, it’s amazing to see that when I ask people, “What do you hope the new year will bring you?” the answer is usually “more time."
But that’s not something new. Wanting more time to do the things we need and want to do likely goes back to the dawn of humankind. Composers have also been concerned with time since, well, the beginning of musical time. To a musician, time can have a couple of different meanings, from how a time signature indicates the number of beats in a measure and the note value that gets one beat, to the length of a piece.
When I sang in the Boston College Chorale, “coming in on time” was an often-stated phrase by our conductor. And getting to a gig to help with equipment load-in is important because the show can’t begin without everyone and everything being there “on time.”
In the spirit of the New Year’s “more time” wishes, here are some musical pieces about Time, in, if I may, chronological order.
English Renaissance composer John Dowland wrote “Time Stands Still” for his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires in 1603. Dowland wants to assure us of the timelessness of beauty and love: “All other things shall change but she remains the same.” This version with soprano Michal Bitan and lutenist Earl Christy shows the lyrics.
Some have speculated that Dowland wrote this piece about Queen Elizabeth I. As she aged, and even after her death, writers, painters and musicians of the period portrayed her as perfection and timeless.
An oratorio by Handel takes . . . some time . . . to explain the passage of time. It all started in 1707 when Handel wrote his first oratorio, based on an Italian libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. The original title was The Triumph of Time and Disillusion, HWV 46a. It took another 30 years, but Handel reworked the piece and retitled it, The Triumph of Time and Truth, HWV 46b. But wait – there’s more! Time marched on, and in 1757 the piece was translated into English and reworked, mostly by Handel’s last librettist, Thomas Morell, although this time it kept its second title and later given the catalog number HWV 71.
The basic story is that the characters Time and Counsel (Truth) confront the characters Pleasure and Deceit in a fight for the soul of Beauty. The oratorio opens with Beauty staring into her mirror, wishing to stall Time. Although Pleasure and Deceit make a persuasive case, in the end, Beauty understands Truth’s warning that youth won’t last forever.
I’ve always loved the aria “Guardian Angels, oh, protect me” and this is a lovely version with soprano Danielle de Niese and The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket.
It’s interesting to me that from inception to final version, Handel took 50 years to complete the musical journey. By the time he was working on the final version, he was battling poor eyesight and age-related poor health. He wanted to flesh out the character of Deceit more, but instead of adding brand new arias and choruses, he borrowed musical themes from some of his other works.
So where did the concept of “time” come from? Historians point to measurement of time as an important mark of progress, and in particular, the ancient Egyptians and their invention of the sundial. Then there’s the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament, taking on the question in the first chapter, Genesis: “In the beginning,” and painting a picture of God creating the world in six days.
In 1795, Joseph Haydn was looking for a subject for a large oratorio. The story goes that when he was traveling in England, he was handed a poem called The Creation of the World, by an unknown author. When he got back to Vienna, Haydn began his preparation of a musical setting by giving the lengthy piece to librettist Gottfried van Swieten, who added to it a variety of Bible quotes, including some from the English King James Version. When the piece was premiered in 1798 it ran for almost two hours. “In the interest of time,” here is just the Prelude, “The Representation of Chaos,” with conductor Christopher Hogwood leading The Academy of Ancient Music.
Haydn did consider The Creation to be his greatest masterpiece, and it received acclaim and performances at least 40 times during his lifetime. (You can hear a complete performance of The Creation by the Handel and Haydn Society, led by Harry Christophers in his last concert as Artistic Director, on demand.)
One of Haydn’s students also tried to compose a work about “time” in 1812. The second movement, Allegretto scherzando, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 sounds like a clock keeping time. There seems to be a debate about whether Beethoven was imitating another time-related instrument, a metronome, or whether he might have been paying homage to Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “The Clock.” Whatever the true inspiration, you get the time-keeping idea as soon as you start listening. Here’s Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
In November of 2022, in a post entitled “Classical Music Responds to the Times,” I told the story of French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote Quartet for the End of Time while in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941. The instruments he used in the piece were for what was available at the camp. Messiaen wrote that the Book of Revelation (King James Version) inspired the work: “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer.” The Playground Ensemble plays the second movement, the Vocalise, depicting the Angel.
Although the subject and the mood are dark, this is one of Messiaen's finest works.
In 1945, Sergei Prokofiev took a different approach towards time when he wrote the ballet Cinderella, Op. 87, based on the old fairy tale. In two instances, time is a major factor in the story. The first instance is familiar to all who know the tale: Cinderella had been warned by her Fairy Godmother that even though she is at the Royal Ball, she must keep an eye on the clock, for when it strikes midnight the spell will break, and she will be returned to rags. You can hear the confusion and desperation at the stroke of twelve. The Cleveland Orchestra is conducted here by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Prokofiev tackled the passage of time in Act 3. The Prince travels the world by bending space and time in order to find his beautiful Princess. Although he is seen trying on the glass slipper on young women from Europe to Asia, the time travel turns out to be something he accomplishes by magic. The audience realizes that from Cinderella’s perspective, it is only the next day when the Prince arrives at her family’s home to see if there are any local maidens who fit the slipper. Here is “The Morning After the Ball,” complete with the “march of time,” with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Another piece from 1945 takes a very lighthearted approach to time. American composer Leroy Anderson was in the U.S. Army at the time, assigned to the Scandinavian Desk of Military Intelligence in Washington. Arthur Fiedler invited him to guest conduct the Boston Pops during the upcoming annual Harvard Night. Anderson wrote “Syncopated Clock” in just a few hours and mailed it off to Fiedler, who in turn, had the orchestra parts copied from the score. Anderson traveled to Boston on a 3-day leave and conducted the piece, which became an instant hit. Here’s the recording with Arthur Fiedler and the Pops, released in 1951.
There have been many other orchestras who recorded the piece, but the Boston Pops version stayed on the charts for two weeks, climbing to 28!
Motivational speaker Stephen Covey’s most often quoted line is “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important,” a good line upon which to reflect as the new year launches. And here’s another: “6:30 is the best time, hands down!” Happy New Year!
CODA: One of the most talked about “time pieces” was written by American composer John Cage in 1947-48. Cage said that “4’33” (spoken as “4-33,” or “4 Minutes 33-Seconds”), embodied his idea that any auditory experience constituted music. Here’s a performance by William Marx. See if you understand what Cage meant.