Heroes in Music
Who comes to mind when you hear the word “hero?” Batman? Superman? Maybe more distant historical figures and legends? And how about the “day-to-day” heroes, like our military, or the medical personnel we honored in the beginning days of the Covid pandemic?
While the definition of hero and heroine may change with the context, our admiration of them hasn’t changed throughout the centuries. Classical composers have also recognized and honored “heroes” through the centuries. For National Heroes Day on Oct. 8, here are a few:
Frederic Chopin’s 1842 Polonaise in A-flat was given the nickname, the “Heroic,” not by Chopin, but in a roundabout way through the personal correspondence between Chopin and his lover, Aurore Dupin (known by her pen name George Sand). In response to the French Revolution of 1848, Sand founded her own newspaper which gave her the opportunity to write political essays. When she heard Chopin’s Polonaise, she found great inspiration in the piece and told him so: “The inspiration! The force! The vigor! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on this polonaise must be a symbol. A heroic symbol.” Pianist Arthur Rubinstein called it the “composition closest to my heart.”
And if the main theme sounded familiar, it was the base for the 1945 pop ballad that Perry Como made a hit, “Till the End of Time.”
It had become Antonín Dvořák’s custom to base his programmatic works, including four other symphonic poems, on poetry or old Czech folk tales, so it was unusual that there was no specific story or poem used when he wrote A Hero’s Song in 1897. As a result, the symphonic poem, also known as Heroic Song for Orchestra, has led to some controversial speculation that Dvořák meant the piece to be autobiographical.
Dvořák himself spoke of the piece: “What naturally came to mind was more of a spiritual hero, an artist, so I think the hero is suggested by the very first theme. It expresses energy, resolve and strength.” Andris Nelsons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Although it is performed less regularly than his other symphonic poems, the piece, comprised of four movements, like a symphony, has been compared stylistically to Beethoven, something that Dvořák said he was aiming for.
Heroic Song isn’t the only piece that imagines the “artist as hero.” It is said that Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) was autobiographical, with a message that it’s the artist who saves civilization. Strauss himself gave conflicting stories about exactly who was the hero.
The tone poem was written in 1898. In its six sections, it introduces you to “The Hero,” then to “The Hero’s Adversaries,” “The Hero’s Companion,” “The Hero at Battle,” “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” and finally, “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion.” Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic.
By the way, the section that was titled “The Hero’s Adversaries,” was interpreted as being about the Strauss’s harshest music critics. In reviewing this piece, those same critics did not hold back their opinions. One described it as “the climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant and erratic.” But countless performances over the last 125 years are evidence that many disagree.
One of the most famous stories concerning hero pieces in classical music has to be the name change of one of Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven admired Napoleon Bonaparte, who, as First Consul of the Republic (after the French Revolution), was against the idea of a monarchy, espousing instead the ideals of a democratic society. Beethoven decided to dedicate his Third Symphony to him in 1804. This was in accord with Beethoven’s political leanings and his original title was simply “Napoleon Bonaparte.” When Beethoven learned that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor of France, he reportedly flew into a rage, and said, “Now he will think himself superior to all men [and] become a tyrant!” He then famously grabbed the title page off a nearby table and tore it in half. The piece then was renamed “Sinfonia eroica,” (Heroic Symphony). Considered one of the great recordings of this symphony, here’s Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
The symphony was given a new dedicatee, Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, who was Beethoven’s patron, and who had asked for six months of exclusive use of the symphony once it was completed, to which Beethoven agreed. The original score doesn’t exist, but a copy, which includes holes on the title page caused by Beethoven scratching out Napoleon’s name, is stored in a Vienna museum.
Alexander Nevsky was a medieval prince who became a legendary hero of early Russia for his victories over invading armies from Sweden and Germany, and later invading Mongol armies. Just over 300 years after his death, the Russian Orthodox Church declared him a saint in 1547. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was asked to write the soundtrack for the 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky. Here is the “Song of Nevsky” which is heard early in the film to describe Alexander, and is used again towards the end. The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Soon after the popular movie was released, Prokofiev reworked some of the soundtrack into what is described as a “cantata for orchestra and chorus.” The “Song of Nevsky” was included in the new piece. Shortly after, Prokofiev admitted that he spent more time working on his cantata Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78, than he did on the original soundtrack!
Between 1917 and 1918 Sir Charles Villiers Stanford wrote 5 organ sonatas. While he dedicated four of them to leading organists of the day, Stanford's response to the ongoing World War I prompted him to also honor the great hero-soldiers who were fighting that war. He felt that the solemnity and weight an organ brings to the listener best described the magnitude of feeling for the soldiers and their bloody, brutal mission. Since he was also influenced by the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the French instrumentalist and composer Charles-Marie Widor, the piece begins with the movement titled “Rheims”, evoking the Great Cathedral in that French city. In the second and third movements he focused his admiration on the French soldiers as they fought the German soldiers at the longest battle of the war in Verdun. You’ll hear little bits of La Marseillaise woven throughout the piece. Organist James Orford recorded the piece at Westminster Cathedral:
Stanford went on to fully orchestrate the second and third movements as a separate piece once he saw how popular the sonata had become.
American composer Philip Glass was moved by pop star David Bowie’s album Heroes, released in 1977. Bowie explained the art rock song was about lovers who lived on either side of the Berlin Wall. They cannot be together any more, but they can dream about freedom:
“I will be king,
And you will be queen,
Though nothing will drive them away.
We can beat them, just for one day.
We can be heroes, just for one day.”
In 1996, Glass wrote his Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” using the Bowie song of the same name as inspiration for the first movement. Glass tells the story that choreographer Twyla Tharp approached him to write Heroes as a ballet. They in turn presented the idea to Bowie, who was enthusiastic about the project. The six movements were each based on themes from the Heroes album. Glass called the final work a “symphonic ballet.”
Marin Alsop conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra here in the first movement:
Glass said he hoped the composition would “reintroduce this music to new listeners.”
Whether heroes are real or imagined, what we do know is that they remind us that good triumphs over evil and they provide hope for better times in the future.
CODA: While I’ve admired the feats of some historical heroes, my father (my personal hero) insisted that my siblings and I learn to be our own heroes as we grew up. Although not a great fan of pop music, Dad nodded approvingly when I brought him this song, Hero, made a hit by Mariah Carey from her 1993 album, Music Box.
“And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive.”