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Galloping through Classical Music

Horses saying "Hi!)
Lucia Macedo
Horses saying "Hi!)

Horses and humans have interacted with each other for thousands of years. Cave paintings and other archeological finds show that horses were a food source for centuries. It’s believed that horses were domesticated only from about 3,500 to 6,000 years ago. It didn’t take long for humans to rely on them for everything from transportation and farm work to their eventual use in combat.

The noble horse also became a prime subject for composers. Here are a few examples.

Listeners to WCRB hear us play dances called “galops.” Originally called a “Galopade,” the fast-paced dance was named after the fastest gait of a horse, the gallop. While it was referenced in writing as a dance as early as the 1790s, it is believed it was the French Duchess de Berri who introduced the galop style of dance in the 1820s.

Franz Liszt wrote at least five piano galops that all gained recognition in their day, but the 1838 Grand galop chromatique became the most famous, possibly because Liszt considered it his favorite encore piece. If a galop describes a horse’s gallop, this one describes a race horse! Here is György Cziffra, who made playing this piece as an encore one for which he was also remembered favorably:

Another famous galop was the one Tchaikovsky included in Act I of his 1892 ballet The Nutcracker. “The Children’s Galop” is a very short dance, but you hear the pace of a horse right at the beginning. Here is the scene as danced by The New York City Ballet:

Many composers, including Johann Strauss II, Schubert, and even Gershwin (for the 1937 movie Shall We Dance), jumped to write galops as the dance remained popular for decades.

In 1845 Hector Berlioz wrote what he called a “dramatic legend” (a cross between an opera and a cantata), inspired by a translation he read of Goethe’s poem, Faust. In Berlioz’s retelling, there is a very dark scene in Act IV of The Damnation of Faust where Méphistophélès agrees to help Faust save the innocent Marguerite from being hanged if Faust will give his soul to him. Although Faust believes they are racing on horseback to save Marguerite, he soon realizes that the devil is actually taking him into the bowels of hell. This performance is from London’s Proms, led by the late Sir Andrew Davis.

Franz von Suppé wrote the music for an 1866 operetta called The Light Cavalry. It tells the story of how the Light Cavalry (a military fighting unit on horseback that carried lighter weapons while riding very fast horses) helps to reunite separated lovers. The operetta isn’t performed these days but the exciting overture is programmed regularly. Listen for the famous “the cavalry to the rescue” idea at about 2:23 into the piece! Here’s a live concert video of Mariss Jansons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:

By the way, the word “cavalry” comes from the Latin “caballarius,” meaning a horse, which later evolved to mean a mounted soldier or knight (in Italian, “cavaliere”), further evolving to describe the proper behavior of said knight-on-horseback, bringing us the French “chivalry”.

In 1908 people were still riding horses or horse-led carriages around town. Found in Charles Ives’s collection of band pieces from that year was a musical description of the chaos that happens when there is a runaway horse in the center of town. He never finished the piece, but it was later reconstructed to the version heard most often today. Here’s The U.S. Marine Band, led by Col. Timothy W. Foley, playing Runaway Horse on Main Street:

In April of 1998 Yale University held a three-day festival in honor of the centenary of Ives’s graduation from Yale. Members of the Yale Bands played a concert featuring Runaway Horse.

Like Charles Ives, fellow New Englander Leroy Anderson also gave horses their musical due. If you’ve attended a Holiday Pops Christmas concert, an annual favorite, Sleigh Ride, delights audiences with a convincing horse neigh, right at the very end, always played by a trumpeter (or trumpeters!). Less famous but just as descriptive, is Anderson’s 1951 Horse and Buggy. It’s a carriage ride through the beautiful countryside. This time it’s percussion that gets to imitate the horse. Leonard Slatkin conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra:

And Anderson has one more musical look at horses, but this time during an exciting race, in a short piece called Home Stretch, from 1962. This version is played by the Boston Pops:

We’ve grown up with all kinds of movies about horses, from National Velvet to Black Beauty, The Black Stallion to The Horse Whisperer to Secretariat. Many of the soundtracks are beautiful and evocative, but I actually felt my heart beating out of my chest in the race scene in 2003’s Seabiscuit. Randy Newman composed the soundtrack. Here is the Seabiscuit Suite:

CODA:  Picking up on the horse race idea, one more piece of music, but this time from the point of view of the bettors. The 1950s Broadway musical Guys and Dolls features a scene where Nicely-Nicely, Rusty Charlie, and Benny Southstreet are holding their racing forms, telling each other that they have inside info that their horse choice will win. While many call this the “Can Do” song, the official name given by composer Frank Loesser is “Fugue for Tinhorns.” This is the scene from the 1955 movie version of the musical:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.