Classical Music's Biggest TV Moments in 2022
A Room Full of Bach on Stranger Things
Classical music is all over the Netflix series, and the latest season includes Korngold, Glass, and Verdi. One classical moment comes along with Johann Sebastian Bach happens almost in passing but proves to be extremely important. In Pennhurst the Minuet in D minor from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach is used to calm patients down in an area called "the listening room."
Thanks to a line from the warden in this scene, the presence of music proves to be an important trigger throughout the episode - a tool for resisting the season’s big villain.
Harry the Violinist on The Sandman
There are many evocative and even terrifying moments in David Buckley’s soundtrack to The Sandman. Which makes the time that the title character, also known as Dream (Tom Sturridge), spends with his sister Death (played stunningly by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) all the more tender by comparison. Buckley described her as bringing a “warm embrace.” And while his completely original music, devoid of any Dies Irae references, is equally warm, it’s the music made by one of the dying that is the most moving. Series creator Neil Gaiman claims even he cried the first time he saw the scene with Harry the violinist.
The Chevalier on Dangerous Liaisons
There are many, many adaptations of the original novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The story is set in 1780s France, showing the awful behavior of the nobility right before revolution arrived. But it’s been retold repeatedly, updated to current time periods (see Netflix for a film version of one of these right now). Which is why it’s refreshing to see a period version like the one currently showing on Starz. While the story is quite tense, it wouldn’t feel that way without the proper soundtrack, which is provided with all the period-appropriate strings of Paris’s salons by Anne Nikitin.
Opera is all over the show. And Fisayo Akinade plays a composer character clearly modeled off of famed composer and violinist (among numerous other talents) Joseph Bologne, in this case known as the Chevalier de Saint-Jacques. Also the preferred composer of Marie Antoinette, he delivers one of the harshest verbal burns possible to a soprano in episode 4.
Speaking of Joseph Bologne…
The real Chevalier on Maria Antoinette
The feminist retelling of Marie Antoinette’s reign currently airing on the BBC is produced by Deborah Davis, of the period dark comedy The Favourite. In this case Joseph Bologne, in title the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is named in full when he appears in episode 5, played by Yoli Fuller.
The historic Bologne was a sensation in Paris in his time. President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.”
Ahead of a full biopic about this renaissance man’s incredible story, it’s no surprise that he’s finally being appropriately included in portrayals of the time. This one is only currently streaming in the BBC iPlayer, but it’s headed to PBS in 2023.
Natalie Holt uses The Force for Obi Wan
We’re used to Star Wars stories growing in excitement and hope as they progress, with the music doing the same. But Obi-Wan’s series doesn’t end with triumph - it leads characters to go their separate ways, setting up the plot of episode 4. So composer Natalie Holt had an interesting task in the realm of Star Wars scores. The saga’s main composer John Williams created the theme for the title character, and Holt had the task of bringing the series home in a gray area - not really darkness or light at the end.
Star Wars scores are made out of individual character themes that have become iconic. Holt was offered the chance to enter the elite club of three composers besides John Williams who have worked on the films and series because of her work on Marvel show Loki, which included acoustic classical music along with electronic sounds like theremin, as well as nordic instruments. In that same vein, and like Ludwig Göransson composing for The Mandalorian, Holt made use of synthesizers, and even her own violin playing alongside James Ehnes.
A Red Dress in a Box Seat on The Gilded Age
Of all the social battlefields in 1882 New York in HBO’s The Gilded Age, music might be the only one yet to be conquered by the newly monied Russell family. Despite her offers to give generously to any cause, and her obvious ability to afford a box, family matriarch Bertha Russell is unable to find a place for her family to be seen at the Academy of Music.
Russell, a character inspired by Alva Vanderbilt, scores an invitation to visit a friend’s box at a concert led by real historic composer/conductor John Knowles Paine in an evening that proves to be full of intrigue. Romances begin and end in the boxes, while Bertha looks simply stunning.
A Rule-Breaking Bolero
On the anniversary of Torvil and Dean’s ground-breaking (ice-breaking, that is) use of the piece to score their gold-standard routine, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero was once again on ice at the Winter Olympics. Three routines using the piece were all fiery and beautiful.
Initially Russian skater Kamila Valieva seemed to be a marvel, but revelations about her rule-breaking with regards to banned substances led to further drama throughout the games. While Valieva may or may not return to the ice, odds are that Bolero will.
Fire Shut Up In My Bones on Great Performances
Charles Blow’s memoir takes its title from Jeremiah 20:9, and tells the story of a troubled upbringing. Blow faces his history of poverty and abuse, beginning by seeking revenge and recalls his own history in an effort to find a path to forgiveness. Composer Terence Blanchard is well known for his many film scores, including the new remake of Father of the Bride, as well as his celebrated career as a trumpet player. Librettist Kasi Lemmons might be best known for writing the 2019 Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet. Lyrical music with its loud echoes of jazz is the main event, but the choreography by Camille A. Brown is also a standout reason to press play on this opera.
Will Liverman and Angel Blue are the stars of this New York Metropolitan Opera performance, which is still available for viewing on the Great Performances website.
Bonus: Along with Fire Shut Up in My Bones you can also see Lucy Negro Redux on Great Performances, featuring Nashville Ballet. The music by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi scores a ballet based on a collection of poems by Caroline Randall Williams, who narrates her journey through learning about Shakespeare’s lover, the so-called Dark Lady of his sonnets.
The next two entries are from shows that were released this month: Wednesday and The White Lotus. As such, spoilers are ahead.
Wednesday’s Face Melting Solo
Wednesday Addams brings her cello along to Nevermore Academy in the dark Netflix adaptation of the character, which is scored by Danny Elfman. She frequently processes her feelings at the instrument, even famously playing it outside her enviable rose window with a rendition of Paint it Black that would make heavy metal string player Rachel Barton Pine proud.
But it’s in Episode 3 that she uses it to accompany pure mayhem. The town that houses Nevermore plans to unveil a statue of a truly horrible pilgrim, and Wednesday simply will not have this horrible person memorialized. So, she and Thing conspire to bring an explosive finale to the ceremony. Standing out from the school’s band uniforms in her solid black, she is the only one who doesn’t flee when the fuse is lit - instead switching to a solo rendition of Vivaldi’s “Winter.”
The look in her eyes as the face literally melts off of the bronze statue fits with the final line of the sonnet that accompanies the concerto: “This is winter, but it brings joy.”
Tanya’s Big Scene on The White Lotus
Viewers entered the final episode of the second season of The White Lotus with a variety of forms of tension. While mostly wondering who would be killed, there was also a question of resolution in the boudoir. The episode opened with the first chords of “When I am laid in earth,” and it’s clear that tragedy is on the way. The harmony’s progression in that aria is a descending line called the “lament bass.” That sound of sighing and crying permeates as all of the characters’ winding stories reach their climax.
Death does finally arrive in the end. And even as Tanya’s guns blaze she still only has one question: “Was Greg having an affair?” And when she hits the water, the cue of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini's Gianni Schicci is masterful. Even though Lauretta sings about retreating to Ponte Vecchio and throwing herself in the Arno rather than drowning off the coast of Sicily after a shootout. All this trouble over the thought of loving in vain.
The show’s numerous fans will all certainly remember Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya. Though like Dido, the character would likely hope we also (ah!) forget her fate.